A Trip Down Memory Lane Leads to a Dead End at a Grisly Crime Scene
Books of The Times
What a pretty picture: an Irish seaside community of 250 new houses built for lucky, happy families. In the evenings the aroma of home cooking fills the air. Commuters return from work. Gleaming cars fill driveways. Children play in the glow of streetlights. Husbands and wives talk in privacy, because these houses are well built. How could neighbors overhear them through such solid walls?
This community, called Brianstown, is at the heart of Tana French’s devious, deeply felt psychological chiller “Broken Harbor.” The place is nothing but a pipe dream. Brianstown is actually a half-built ghost town that bears scant resemblance to its idealized version in sales brochures — a grim monument to an Irish housing boom gone bust. Everything about it is dishonest, even the name. The place was called Broken Harbor before somebody decided Brianstown sounded better.
According to Scorcher Kennedy, the novel’s hard-charging main character, “Broken” is derived from “breacadh,” the Gaelic word for dawn. But we know what it really means. In three earlier books (“In the Woods,”“The Likeness” and the best of the bunch, “Faithful Place”) Ms. French created haunting, damaged characters who have been hit hard by some cataclysm. Her new book’s characters are like that too.
The author uses the nifty trick of extracting a secondary character from each book to narrate the one that follows. Scorcher appeared in “Faithful Place” as a colleague of its main character, a fellow Dublin detective named Frank Mackey. “He wore his swagger as part of his El Snazzo suit,” Ms. French wrote of Scorcher then. But his bravado is put to the test by the events “Broken Harbor” has in store.
“Feast your eyes, old son,” Scorcher says, blasting his way into the investigation of a very odd and vicious crime. In the middle of the night in Brianstown somebody attacked Jenny and Pat Spain and their two young children. Father and children are dead; Jenny is in no shape to talk to investigators. Scorcher sifts through the details of this calamity while ostensibly teaching his smart young partner, Richie Curran, the tricks of their trade.
This may sound like a routine police procedural. But like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” this summer’s other dagger-sharp display of mind games, “Broken Harbor” is something more. It’s true that Ms. French takes readers to all the familiar way stations of a murder investigation: the forensics, the autopsies, the serial interrogations and so on. But she has urgent points to make about the social and economic underpinnings of the Spain family murders. And she has irresistibly sly ways of toying with readers’ expectations.
Take the Spain house’s décor: The place is impeccable except that its walls are full of holes. Clean, dustless holes, not newly punched ones. This detail gets mentioned at the beginning of the book. It hovers in the background as something crazy. But “Broken Harbor” manages to gaze past the holes many times, almost casually, before it fully explains what they mean.
Then there is Scorcher’s family connection to Broken Harbor. This was the seaside resort at which he, his parents and his siblings spent two weeks every year. It is the place where his mother committed suicide. This makes the Spains’ nightmare that much more resonant for him. News that Scorcher is investigating this crime coaxes his crazy sister Dina out of whatever hole she has been hiding in and into the fray.
Ms. French’s books all give the same first impression. They start slowly and seem to need tighter editing. But as in “Faithful Place,” she patiently lays her groundwork, then moves into full page-turner mode. It takes a while for Scorcher and Richie to nail their possible culprit. Even then this person’s arrival in the story raises many more questions than it answers.
And those holes gets more puzzling with each new twist. The Spains, an otherwise picture-perfect family, were plagued by some kind of intruder, real or imagined. A creature, two-legged or four-, seemed to have invaded their happy home. And Jenny Spain favored expensive clothes even after Pat lost his job, and money became scarce. Perhaps she wanted a mink. But not the kind she feared was living in the walls.
That Ms. French is also an actress surely accounts for her skill with minor characters. They include a caustic computer guy who eventually finds the message board where Pat asked questions about catching squirrels. The message board rambles, and you wonder why you are reading through it, until you don’t. Ms. French lets Pat’s online voice begin blandly, then turn devastating.
But this is primarily Scorcher’s book. And Scorcher (who brings to mind Benjamin Black’s Quirke, another battle-scarred yet soulful Irish crime solver) is both its narrator and conscience. He truly believes that he keeps the basic, feral side of human nature at bay. About the bad gamble that the Spains made on real estate, Scorcher says, “It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror.”
He will feel this for real before “Broken Harbor” is over.
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Broken Harbor review - Tana French
Even if it weren’t for the murdered family — a husband hacked to death with a kitchen knife, a grievously injured wife barely hanging on, two kids smothered in their beds — Broken Harbor would be a pretty depressing place. Irish crime writer Tana French sets her latest procedural in a shoddily constructed housing subdivision outside of Dublin that now sits unfinished, inhabited by families who fell for the developers’ pitch and squatters who camp in the empty hulks of half-built houses.
Into this grim landscape walks detective ”Scorcher” Kennedy, a 10-year veteran of the murder squad who has a stiff demeanor, a stellar clearance record, and his own fraught history with Broken Harbor, where his family vacationed when he was a kid. He’s there to investigate that vicious crime against the Spain family, who are, it soon becomes clear, victims twice over: first of Ireland’s economic decline and now of some mystery slasher. French builds suspense with subtle expertise and an ear for the quirks of Irish speech (did you forget that yoke in your gaff, but?), tapping into the setting’s gone-to-seed emptiness and amping up the menace with some exquisitely creepy business involving strange scratching noises in the Spains’ attic.
A few characters (the rookie learning the ropes, the grumpy ME) feel too familiar, and a major twist involving Kennedy’s partner stretches plausibility. But French has that procedural pro’s knack for making mundane police work seem fascinating. And she’s drawn not just to the who but also to the why — those bigger mysteries about the human weaknesses that drive somebody to such inhuman brutality. What really gives Broken Harbor its nerve-rattling force is her exploration of events leading up to the murders, rendered just as vividly as the detectives’ scramble to solve them. A-
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Harbor movie broken
I became interested in Tana French’s books because of a friend’s recommendation. This friend shared some of my tastes. We loved the novels of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. My friend said French’s books were just as good.
Maybe she’s right about French’s first novel, In the Woods. I haven’t read that one, but people seem to speak about it in a breathless way, and it won several awards. But I’ve read two of French’s novels, The Likeness and Broken Harbor, and I’ve had a hard time with both of them.
I read The Likeness in preparation for this review. I thought it would be a good idea to familiarize myself with French’s style.
The Likeness is the tale of a young woman, Cassie, who impersonates a murder victim to try to learn about the circumstances of the victim’s death. Cassie pretends that the woman did not, in fact, die; she insinuates herself into a tightknit group of friends — a group that may or may not include the murderer. As Cassie gets to know the friends, she falls in love with them. She struggles to remain impartial, and it’s especially hard because she’s playing two roles at once — inspector and cheerful, innocent grad student.
The Likeness had a gripping climax. But the novel was far, far too long. It was bloated. The dialogue was often painfully false. The characters sometimes felt like props — not like actual people. No one had a sense of humor. What’s worse, clichés were presented as evidence of humor. But the clichés weren’t humorous; they were just clichés.
These facts surprised and disappointed me, because French has a towering reputation. Her novels are consistently well-reviewed. She is a bestseller and a critic’s darling.
Anyway, I wasn’t really looking forward to Broken Harbor.
Let’s start with a synopsis.
This latest French novel is about an excellent detective, Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, on the Murder Squad. Kennedy lives in Ireland, in a time not too far from our very own. The recession has recently hit. Houses are abandoned. Developments are rotting.
Kennedy is summoned from his desk to take on a new case. Several members of a family, the Spain family, have been murdered. Son, daughter, and husband are all dead. The wife, Jennifer Spain, is just barely alive, and who’s to say how long she will last?
Kennedy enters the Land of the Spain Case with a colorful assortment of friends, enemies, allies, and tricksters. There’s Kennedy’s assistant, a young man named Richie Curran who has a gift for empathy. There’s the nefarious Quigley, a greasy rival of Kennedy’s. There’s the snooty Dr. Cooper, who has to make each interaction as difficult and unpleasant as possible.
Rather quickly, Kennedy is faced with a series of daunting tests. Is one suspect as clearly guilty as he seems to be? Why did one of the victims post several ranting online accounts of a possible rodent intruder weeks before the murders occurred? How can Kennedy manage his severely disturbed sister, Dina, when he has so much work to do? How can Kennedy keep his memories of his own suicidal mother from bogging him down during this case?
I’ll leave it there. Just know that the climax is surprising and powerful. Like The Likeness, Broken Harbor has as its best feature a startling twist and resolution.
There’s one other thing I can praise about this novel. French has some interesting observations about murder and human behavior. A stalker is likely to kill you with several, unnecessarily zealous wounds; if you have just a slight cut, it’s unlikely you were assaulted by a stalker. (Actually, that insight is from The Likeness.) When an autopsy is performed, your skull might be forcibly cracked. Your face might be peeled back like the plastic on a frozen dinner. Your liver might be deposited on a scale and weighed (for reasons unclear).
Also, if a murderer is likely to die and can confess off the record, he or she will probably do so. (Perhaps this is simply for the relief of unburdening oneself.) It’s pointless to ask if there are signs of forced entry at a crime scene, because it’s very easy just to fake signs of forced entry.
If you are an investigator, your job is not to befriend and console the victims. The most compassionate thing to do is just to stick to the facts. This point may seem counter-intuitive: Shouldn’t you try to offer some emotional support? But French persuasively argues that detachment is the best modus operandi. Your job is simply to solve the case; solving the case will do more good, in the long run, than offering a shoulder to cry on.
I enjoyed thinking about each of these topics as French presented them.
But here is what I hated, just hated about this book.
French has a terrible habit of writing bad dialogue. This news startled me, because French seemed to boast about her dialogue-writing abilities in some press materials; she said that she would not write a line of dialogue that she couldn’t imagine herself saying on-stage. And yet characters are constantly interrupting themselves to use epithets and names. “Old son.” “Mikey.” “Dina.” This error is middle-school-level. When you are talking to someone, you don’t constantly stop yourself to address the person by name, or by a nickname. Even if you did, you would want to leave this tic out of your prose, because it slows down the narrative. Everytime the words “old son” appeared in Broken Harbor, I wanted to scream.
Like The Likeness, Broken Harbor is far, far too long. It could be trimmed by at least 100 pages. Critics were observing this unpleasant feature of French’s writing as early as The Likeness; it’s now inexcusable that she hasn’t addressed the weakness. Dialogues are frequently interrupted to provide lazy, obvious bits of narration. At one point, French stops a dialogue to tell us that her protagonist is stressed and experiencing heartburn. We could have inferred this information, and it contributes nothing to the story.
Part of the fun of reading is that, if the story is well-told, you have to meet the writer half-way; you have to supply some of the details, with your own imagination. French is too hasty to challenge the reader’s inferential skills. She seems to assume that the reader is not very bright — and this tendency is grating, to say the least.
Also, there are far too many flat characters. One or two here and there can be fun, like a bright orchid in a field of sunflowers. But nearly everyone in Broken Harbor is predictable and one-dimensional. Quigley is a cartoon character. The dirty next-door neighbors will always be weak-willed and dishonest. The protagonist will always be tough as nails. (At one point, French actually uses the phrase “tough as nails” — and here I wanted to put a bullet in my brain.)
So: shoddy dialogue, clunky, obvious bits of narration, and characters who are paper-thin. A writer’s job is to be both surprising and inevitable. With rare exceptions, French’s prose is both lazy and false.
I feel compelled to make these points because French’s novels have an unearned reputation for greatness. If you want to read a mystery, do yourself a favor. Pick up something by James, Rendell, or Donna Leon.
TAGS Broken HarborIn the WoodsTana FrenchThe LikenessSours: https://www.popmatters.com/162640-broken-harbor-by-tana-french-2495820875.html
Broken Harbour is a crime novel written by Irish novelist Tana French, originally published on 2 July 2012 by Hatchette Books Ireland. It is the 4th book in the Dublin Murder Squad series and was first published in the USA by Viking Penguin a member of the Penguin Group (USA). Tana French was honored with the 'Irish Crime Fiction Award' a bestseller list, eventually reaching the No.3 position. It was also listed in the 'Ireland AM Crime Fiction Books of the Year 2009–2013'.
By April 2013, the book had stormed into the Irish book charts to occupy the 3rd position as a best seller. It was also listed in the 'Ireland AM Crime Fiction Books of the Year 2009–2013'.
A ghost estate outside Dublin – half-built, half-inhabited, half-abandoned – two children and their father are dead. The mother is on her way to intensive care. Scorcher Kennedy is given the case because he is the Murder Squad’s star detective. At first he and his rookie partner, Richie, think this is a simple one: Pat Spain was a casualty of the recession, so he killed his children, tried to kill his wife Jenny, and finished off with himself. But there are too many inexplicable details and the evidence is pointing in two directions at once.
Scorcher’s personal life is tugging for his attention. Seeing the case on the news has sent his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family, one summer at Broken Harbour, back when they were children. The neat compartments of his life are breaking down, and the sudden tangle of work and family is putting both at risk.
- Michael (Scorcher) Kennedy: Detective at the Dublin Murder Squad with an enviable reputation described as 'on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, had the highest solve rate in the place'
- Richie Curran : a rookie assigned to work with Mick.
- Dr Cooper : Chief Medical Examiner
- Dina Kennedy : Mike's younger sister, described as 'one of those old pen-and-ink sketches of fairies: slight as a dancer, with skin that never tans, full pale lips and huge blue eyes'.
- Spain family : Patrick Spain (husband), Jennifer Spain (Wife) and children Emma & Jack- as the victims of the crime.
- ' Broken Harbour is a tale about the different facets of obsession and insanity, and it winds up to a finale that is almost too distressing. The best yet of French's four excellent thrillers, it leaves its readers – just like the Spains – throat-deep in terror. ' - The Guardian
- ' Broken Harbour proves anew that (Tana French) is one of the most talented crime writers alive. '- The Washington Post
- ' Instated Ms. French as one of crime fiction’s reigning grand dames — a Celtic tigress. ' - The Washington Times
Awards and Nomination
- Dilys Award Nominee (2013)
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller (2012)
- Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award (2012)
- Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Mystery & Thriller (2013)
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A Moody Tale Of Murder In A 'Broken' Dublin Suburb
by Tana French
Mid-20th-century mystery master Ross MacDonald is credited with moving hard-boiled crime off the mean streets of American cities and smack into the suburbs. In MacDonald's mythical California town of Santa Teresa, modeled on Santa Barbara, evil noses its way into gated communities, schools and shopping centers that have been built expressly to escape the dirt and danger of the city. I don't know if mystery novelist Tana French is a fan of MacDonald's — in interviews, she credits Golden Age Scottish mystery writer Josephine Tey for inspiration, as well as newer champs like Dennis Lehane — but French's latest novel, Broken Harbor, is set in the kind of suburban wasteland that MacDonald made a career out of excavating. The development here may be outside of Dublin, rather than on the California coast, but the same odor of high-priced dreams gone rotten with damp rises off both MacDonald's work and French's moody and ingenious tale.
Broken Harbor is French's fourth novel in what's called her "Dublin Murder Squad" series; if you haven't read her yet, don't be mislead by that label. French's psychologically rich novels are so much more satisfying than your standard issue police procedural. Each of her novels focuses on one detective in the Murder Squad. You certainly don't have to read the books in order, but if you do, the bonus is that you come to know characters inside and out, and, consequently, realize just how wobbly our knowledge of anybody's "true" nature is. The central detective in BrokenHarbor is Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who came off in Faithful Place, the previous novel in this series, as an arrogant control freak. Here, we gradually learn the painful origins of Scorcher's rage for order.
When this novel opens, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie Curran, are summoned to a multiple homicide at a house in an upscale housing development. This is Scorcher's description of that initial visit:
"At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTER. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.
The houses were too much alike. ... [M]ost of the driveways were empty, and not in a way that said everyone was out powering the economy. You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky ...
'Jaysus,' Richie said ... 'The village of the damned.'"
Our detectives discover that inside one of the very few occupied houses on Ocean View, almost all the members of a young family have been murdered — a family that, from the pristine look of things, "tried to get everything right." But, on closer examination, there are eerie touches to the decor: holes in the walls and ceilings, buckled flooring, baby monitors scattered obsessively all over the house. Outside the back windows of the kitchen, Scorcher sees nothing but "skeleton houses staring in ... like famine animals circled around the warmth of a fire."
Tana French is the author of the "Dublin Murder Squad" series, of which Broken Harbor is the fourth installment. Kyran O'Brien/Viking Adult hide caption
Tana French is the author of the "Dublin Murder Squad" series, of which Broken Harbor is the fourth installment.Kyran O'Brien/Viking Adult
As those descriptions demonstrate, French brilliantly evokes the isolation of a Gothic landscape out of the Brontes and transposes it to a luxury suburban development gone bust. The cause, of course, is Ireland's economic free fall — the Celtic Tiger turned needy cub — and, like all superior detective fiction, French's novels are as much social criticism as they are whodunit. The family murdered inside that house answered the siren call to the suburbs at precisely the wrong moment in Ireland's history.
Broken Harbor gets a lot more deliciously complicated and chaotic before any illusion of order is restored. The construction of the houses in that blasted development may be shoddy, but not so French's plot and characters. They're as sound and neatly fitting as a coffin lid.