I consider this to be another great hit from Tana French, author of The Likeness, In the Woods, and Faithful Place. Her mysteries are atmospheric, have a strong sense of place (that place being Dublin and the surrounding suburbs), and look back toward the past. Ireland’s economic depressions and the inheritance of related difficulties with employment and housing also play a role in each book. These four books are a series, loosely, in the sense that certain characters overlap; but each stands alone so well it’s almost a disservice to link them together. By no means would I recommend worrying about reading them all, or reading them in order.
In Broken Harbor, Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy is the reigning bad-ass murder detective on the Dublin squad, but the mistakes of a recent case, never described in detail, have him under a shadow; so he’s relieved and excited to get the latest gruesome, media-intensive case. He’s got a partner, Richie, a brand-new rookie from the wrong side of the tracks, which suits Scorcher because he’d just as soon work alone, and an easily-led rookie is the closest thing to working alone. A family of four named Spain – mom, dad, and two little ones – have been attacked in their home; three are dead, and the mom is in intensive care. Their home is in Brianstown, a fancy new development that got left unfinished in its earliest stages by the failing of of the housing boom; it’s not a pretty place after a few years’ decomposition since construction ceased. And, importantly, Brianstown used to be the seaside village of Broken Harbor, where Scorcher vacationed as a child with his family.
The important elements are several. The mystery of who nearly wiped out the Spain family is, on the face of things, the central plot, and it does keep Scorcher, Richie, and the reader busy for the entire book; the solution isn’t revealed until the final pages. A mystery within the mystery is what’s made all these holes in the walls of their home, and what force was haunting the Spain parents, otherwise poster children for a perfect life, right down to the magazine-worthy interior decor. The economic recession that killed Brianstown before it got out of the gate is an important detail that we attend to throughout, and is part of what makes Dublin & its suburbs the only place this story could be set. And then there are Scorcher’s demons: as we’ve seen in French’s other novels, his childhood connection to Broken Harbor will follow him through this seemingly unrelated case. This is a thriller not just because of the awful fate of the Spains, but also because of Scorcher’s family drama, still playing itself out. His training of the rookie, Richie, is poignant: the detective who never wanted a partner finds himself yearning for the camaraderie he’s observed in other partnerships, wondering if Richie could be “the one.” And finally, Scorcher is forced to do some philosophical questioning. The deal he’s made with the universe, his understanding of the source of the world’s evil, will be challenged.
The tone of this novel is one of my favorite parts. It’s dark, lush, and almost dreamy. Scorcher feels real to me even as he approaches caricature (hey, call me credulous, I’m enjoying this). He’s fatalistic, relying in part upon physical feelings that tell him when he’s getting close; we get hints that he knows what’s coming. His tortured persona, his tendency to distance himself even when he’d like to get close, is a recognizable genre type, but well-done all the same. I always appreciate French’s evocation of Ireland, its culture and the impact its economy continues to have. And the psychological drama of the Kennedy family had me on the edge of my seat. Certain elements are a little formulaic, sure, but beautifully wrought; and the lovely writing puts it in such a package that I don’t mind a bit. This is a great example of why I love Tana French.