California Literary Review

Book Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French

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August 15th, 2012 at 9:18 am

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Broken Harbor by Tana French
Broken Harbor
by Tana French
Viking Adult, 464 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


A Skilled Writer Continues to Impress

Is it possible for writing to be too good for its genre?

Since her 2007 debut, In the Woods, the career of Irish police novelist Tana French has raised that question. Every subsequent book, up to and including her latest, has revived it. Right out of the gate, French displayed a gift for rich psychological plots, complex characterizations, and evocative prose. With her fourth, Broken Harbor, she continues to mature as a writer and (one hopes) to delight and collect more readers across the English-speaking world.

Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, a seasoned detective sergeant with the Murder Squad in Dublin, catches a puzzling case in a lower class suburban beach town north of the city. Patrick and Jenny Spain, a young homeowner and his wife, have been repeatedly stabbed with a large knife; their two children Emma and Jack have been smothered in their beds. Of the four victims, only Jenny survives, clinging to life in the hospital.

The house contains puzzles and secrets of its own, as Kennedy learns with Richie Curran, a detective who’s recently moved over to Murder from Vice. They find multiple miniature video monitors aimed at various corners of the house, holes punched in the walls, and a huge animal trap in the attic. The family’s computer email has been wiped clean. Empty, unsold homes surround the house in the new but unfinished development called Brianstown—though historically the seedy resort has been known as Broken Harbor (from the Gaelic breacadh, for daybreak, Kennedy explains).

Variously characterized as psychological thrillers, police procedurals, or crime novels, French’s books have all featured first-person narration—most of it by men. The authenticity of her feisty young male voices has been impressive and convincing: from working class or lower middle class roots, at least partially college educated, profane yet driven by fierce and complex moral codes, her Undercover and Murder Squad heroes are highly believable and likable, with all their flaws.

Her novels are not connected and progressive in the sense of classic mystery series such as Henning Mankell’s Wallander books or Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynleys. Instead of trying to nail down a franchise and keep readers coming back with an established team of characters who appear in every book, French has taken the more daring tack of steadily changing it up.

Although her protagonist/narrators usually turn up in more than one novel, a different one takes center stage each time. Cassie Maddox, the lone female narrator (so far), in The Likeness (2008), had a substantial supporting role as the partner of Adam “Rob” Ryan, the hero of In the Woods. The third book, Faithful Place (2010), centers on the activities of Undercover detective Frank Mackey, who directed Cassie’s activities in the previous tale. Mackey mentions Murder detective Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy several times in passing, and in Broken Harbor, it’s Kennedy’s turn to describe his biggest case. Readers may pick up any Tana French book and enjoy it as a stand-alone.

In the earlier books, her narrators tended to be overly literary. Of a skinny and half-blind 88-year-old, Ryan says, “It was as if Tutankhamen or Miss Havisham had wandered into the pub one night and started bitching about the head on the pints.” He says his partner’s mind displays an “Escherian defiance of dimension.” In talking about her usually steely nerves on a case, Cassie declares, “I always figured nerves were for Jane Austen characters and helium-voiced girls who never buy their round….”

Reminiscing about his teens, Mackey recalls when he and his girlfriend played “I’ll-show -you-mine”: the breathtaking loveliness of her nude form made him feel that “nothing in the world, not the Mona Lisa walking through the Grand Canyon with the Holy Grail in one hand and a winning Lotto ticket in the other, was ever going to be that beautiful.”

In addition to detailing police procedures and post mortems—a perennial draw for fans of the genre—French’s narrators have also been remarkably thoughtful, even philosophical, about their work. Here’s Mackey, in Faithful Place:

For the first time in my career, I was getting an inkling of why Murder love their job the way they do. When undercovers go hunting, we’ll take anything that wanders into our snares; half the skill is knowing what to use as bait, what to toss back where it came from and what to knock on the head and bring home. This was a whole different thing. These boys were the specialists called in to track down a rogue predator, and they focused on him like they were focusing on a lover.

In the opening pages of In the Woods, the narrator-hero Ryan draws an explicit parallel between himself and a novelist:

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Möbius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.

In other words, Ryan adds a page later, “I crave truth. And I lie.” Just like his creator … and all other storytellers.

While this sort of thing can be highly enjoyable for the literate reader, some might question whether a murder or undercover detective would normally talk like this. I can imagine less sophisticated fans of police procedurals and mystery novels getting irritated about all the tangential stuff, and they might have a point. (French might say, well, they’re Irish.)

The maximum sustainable length for a basic murder plot may be 250 to 300 pages. Once a writer reaches beyond that length, he or she can devote extra space either to talking about details such as the lay of the land (French has always been good at this; she has lived in Dublin since 1990), or creating Shakespearean-style subplots about her primary characters.

For example, Mankell described Wallander’s problems with his father and daughter. George explores the relationships between Inspector Lynley and his closest friends, whose personal issues—such as childlessness—sometimes parallel the themes of the particular crime they are investigating. After killing off one of her longtime principals in With No One as Witness, which shocked and deeply upset many of her fans, George added insult to injury by devoting the entire 548 pages of her next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, to going back in time and exploring the life of the killer—an unusually courageous move for a genre writer.

So far, French’s books have not been as long or convoluted as George’s. At 400 to 466 pages, they move faster. To fill them out, French gives readers a strong sense of place, and deepens the pressure on her heroes (and heroine) by giving them rich pasts and (sometimes) class issues. The passage of time and the weight of one’s earlier setbacks and errors haunt her protagonists. The narrator of In the Woods tackles the murder of a girl very close to the site where he experienced a traumatic overnight incident when he was a teen. Mackey grew up in the neighborhood where his latest case centers, and it seems to relate to his girlfriend at the time, who unaccountably disappeared without a word 22 years before.

In Broken Harbor, the Spain family murders take place at the rundown beach community where Det. Sgt. Kennedy used to go as a child with his family for their annual vacation … and there’s a deeply scarring event associated with that place and time. Fortunately, French has learned mostly to subsume her literary pretensions and the deeper philosophical themes within the plot, rather than have her narrators gab about them. The reader may or may not realize that William of Ockham is getting a call-out when Kennedy tells Curran, “There was a philosopher … a few hundred years back, who said you should always go for the simplest solution,” but it doesn’t matter.

For those of us who can’t resist eye-catching prose, there are still gems here. A tech at the crime scene remarks, “there’s enough bloody footprints here for Dracula’s marching band….” Regarding a potential “media cyclone of cops-don’t-care-about-the-little-guy hysteria,” Kennedy says: “It feels like someone’s using a tennis ball machine to fire starving pug dogs at you.” Preparing to interview the stabbed wife’s sister, he observes, “raw grief smells like ripped leaves and splintered branches, a jagged green shriek.”

The younger, inexperienced partner is an old and honorable genre device. In discussing the case, their methods, and theories with the novice, the narrator can supply the reader with plenty of exposition. French handles this with skill. Richie Curran occasionally figures things out himself, offers a sharp counter-theory, and even—crucially—disagrees with Kennedy about the prime suspect for a good part of the story.

Dialogue is one of the greatest gifts of a Tana French novel. A resident of Dublin for the past 22 years, the American-born writer knows her territory. Americans will likely be charmed by “What’s after happening,” “We went to yous lot, even,” and “I’d say she was after getting the young one from school….” Trained as an actress at Trinity College, Dublin, and associated with the Purple Heart Theatre Company, French likely draws on her stage experience to create crackling verbal exchanges.

This shows especially in the terrific interrogation sequences—perhaps this reader’s favorite of all the set pieces in her books. Knowing the narrator’s character through and through, you can enjoy his or her playacting in these scenes. In the overheated description from the narrator of the first book:

I wish I could show you how an interrogation can have its own beauty, shining and cruel as that of a bullfight; how in defiance of the crudest topic or the most moronic suspect it keeps inviolate its own taut, honed grace, its own irresistible and blood-stirring rhythms; how the great pairs of detectives know each other’s every thought as surely as lifelong ballet partners in a pas de deux. I never knew and never will whether either Cassie or I was a great detective, though I suspect not, but I know this: we made a team worthy of bard-songs and history books. This was our last and greatest dance together, danced in a tiny interview room with darkness outside and rain falling soft and relentless on the roof, for no audience but the doomed and the dead.

With each succeeding novel, French hasn’t just been able to tell you about it—she shows you.

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