Thursday, March 07, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Tana French is one of my favorite mystery writers. I discovered her books after making my way through the entire catalog of Ian Rankin's Detective Inspector John Rebus novels which are set in  and around Edinburgh, Scotland. French sets her novels in and around Dublin, Ireland. So, they are related in that they are both set in the United Kingdom.

French is somewhat notorious for her debut novel, In The Woods (2007) which violated one of the key rules of the murder mystery genre (I won't tell you which one!). Her other books, The Likeness (2008) and Faithful Place (2010)have also distinguished themselves for their horrific crime scenes, detailed and nuanced characters and shifting (although loosely linked) cast of detective protagonists. Her entire oeuvre is now commonly referred to as the Dublin Murder Squad series.

Her latest Dublin Murder Squad book is Broken Harbor and features Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who was a minor character in Faithful Place. In Broken Harbor we are presented Scorcher as the detective on the squad with the highest solve rate who has some skeletons in his closet and has recently suffered a professional setback when he gets a high-profile horrific case dumped in his lap: a report that an entire family of four (mom,dad,son,daughter) has been found dead in a nouveau riche suburb of Dublin.

Of course all is not what it seems at first blush. The first complicating factor is that the mom (Jenny Spain) is not dead, but instead is badly beaten and clinging to life despite multiple stab wounds. The second complicating factor is that Scorcher is given a new partner to work with, Richie Curran, who also happens to be a rookie detective who has managed to pull himself out of lower class squalor by his bootstraps to a hard-fought position on the Dublin Murder Squad. The third complicating factor is that the area in which the murders took place (which is now called "Broken Harbour" but used to be known by the less lyrical name of Brianstown) is also the place where Scorcher's own mentally imbalanced mother committed suicide by walking into the sea with his now-mentally ill youngest sister Dina.

Broken Harbor is the most procedural of French's novels to date. The details and rhythms of the investigation provide the backbone of the novel, as we follow Scorcher and Richie as they  unearth how the domestic life of Pat and Jenny Spain unravelled in the weeks and months before the murders occurred. French's brilliance is demonstrated clearly in the slow reveal of the secrets buried in the past of Pat and Jenny's life together (they were high school sweethearts who bought their dream home in the suburbs and then were overwhelmed by debt and despair fueled by the economic collapse affecting the global economy and Ireland).

Some reviews have stated that they figured out who the murderer was relatively early in the book and felt that the book was longer than they felt it needed to be, but I would disagree. I was surprised by the revelation of who killed Pat Spain and his two little kids, and I was even more surprised by the other developments that occur in the book as well.

As usual with a French book, by the end of the book the reader is more highly invested in the future of the investigator than the investigation and Broken Harbor  is no different in that regard. Unfortunately, it is unlikely any of her future books will include any more information about Scorcher or Richie.

However, happily we have reporting which indicates that French will actually allow one of the main characters from one of her previous books (Frankie Mackey from Faithful Place) to return in her next book, which is called The Secret Place.

I can't wait!

Title: Broken Harbor.
Tana French.
Paperback: 464 pages.
 Viking Adult.
Date: July 24, 2012.

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.75/4.0).


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