I've been an avid fan of Tana French since her chilling debut novel, In the Woods, a poetically written murder mystery that combined police procedural with psychological thriller. She writes evocatively about solitary adults afflicted by damaged childhoods. Her novels go beyond the murder cases and weave layered tales about memories, the search for identity, the healing of broken families, and the social and economic issues of contemporary Ireland. Broken Harbor will satisfy old enthusiasts and hook new ones alike with its complex characters, detailed plot, moving themes and fresh, taut dialogue.
The narrator is Detective Mick 'Scorcher' Kennedy, a tough, flinty cop introduced in French's third novel, Faithful Place. Here he is fleshed out as a media-savvy and taciturn (and surprisingly sensitive) crackerjack detective with a reputation to fix. He is assigned to a murder that occurred in the affluent but half-abandoned suburb of Brianstown, which used to be called Broken Harbor. This is sure to be a high profile case: the fatal stabbing of a family man, Patrick Spain, and the suffocation of his two young children. His wife, Jenny, a victim of multiple knife wounds, is in critical condition at the hospital's intensive care unit.
Kennedy has a resonant family history with BH, reaching back to childhood summer vacations with his mother (who died years ago) and two sisters. One sister, Dina, is emotionally unstable, volatile and flammable, and pops in unannounced at inconvenient times. Kennedy is protective of Dina, but her labile moods and confrontational behaviors are particularly vexing to him during this investigation. Each day that he works on the case has him scratching at the past, exposing his dark torments to the light, as he gets closer to the private lives of the Spain family.
Kennedy chooses a rookie cop, Richie Curran, to help him solve the murder in an upscale housing development, one of many communities that have suffered from Dublin's economic recession. Only his wife, Jenny, survives, hanging by a thread in the hospital, in a coma. Patrick, they learn from Jenny's sister, Fiona, had been laid off from his job months ago, and the historically happy couple were challenged by recession-era fates. Does this factor into the murder? And why are there so many irregular holes in the walls?
The story unfolds gradually, with dense and convoluted character descriptions buoyed by an unhurried pace. It begins with a fact-finding mission, as all her books do, and expands its focus to a poignant examination of family, as well as the socio-economic milieu of Dublin that affects the quality of everyday lives. From the quotidian to the uncommon, French's story encompasses loss, love, and redemption, and wraps around the reader in an elaborate maze.
All the books are loosely connected by a non-narrating character from one novel showing up as the narrator in the next. In this way, nobody suffers from too much exposure (which leads to a tendency to flatten out over time). Instead, the author continues to expand on her vivid portrait of Ireland's working classes with her socially observant eye and sumptuous, moving prose.
Her talent for mining subconscious fears and desires borders on the spectral, with a finesse that keeps it real but laces it with gothic menace. For devotees longing for Rob and Cassie to return, you may be initially disappointed at their absence. However, you'll let it go once you engage in this spellbinding tale.
The prose-rich Tana French will be music to your ears. Here is how Scorcher sees the fragile, evocative beauty of Broken Harbor:
"I looked out over the water, into the night that was coming in on the tide...The beach looked like something I had seen in an old film, once upon a time; that hotheaded boy felt like a character from some book I had read and given away in childhood. Only, somewhere far inside my spine and deep in the palms of my hands, something hummed; like a sound too low to hear, like a warning, like a cello string when a tuning fork strikes the perfect tone to call it awake."