Though Broken Harbour is a classic police procedural, the quality of Tania French’s writing and her depth of understanding of her characters make it much more than that. I might call it a state of the nation novel. I might call it a wide-ranging human drama. I might call it a psychological study.
But maybe I should just call it a very, very good book.
And say that I’m very pleased that I began Reading Ireland Month.with such a good contemporary novel, set in a very definite time and place.
“I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.
Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.”
I have to say that there are times when this book feels very dark and very bleak, but it isn’t ever gratuitous; everything is there for a reason, and this is a story of real lives where terrible things can happen when
Broken Harbour was meant to become Brianstown, an estate of houses by the sea, just outside the city, with all of its own amenities. Building began when the economy was booming, but when the recession began to bite the developers abandoned their project, leaving the handful of buyers who had been enticed by expensive advertising trapped in substandard homes with no way out and without recourse.
The Spains were one of those families, and they were viciously attacked in their new home. The two young children, Emma and Jack, were found dead in their beds. Their parents, Pat and Jenny, were found in the kitchen, in puddles of blood, after being stabbed viciously and repeatedly. Pat was dead, but Jenny was clinging to life by the thinnest of threads.
Mick ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is the Murder Squad Detective assigned to the case, alongside a new partner, Richie Curran, who was new to the squad.
Kennedy seemed to be the perfect man unravel the story of this seemingly inexplicable crime: his crime solve rate was exceptionally high, he was a model professional, and he took a pride in his work and placed it at the centre of his life.
“One of the reasons I love Murder is that victims are, as a general rule, dead… I don’t make a habit of sharing this, in case people take me fore a sicko or- worse-a wimp, but give me a dead child, any day, over a child sobbing his heart out while you make him tell you what the bad man did next. Dead victims don’t show up outside HQ to beg for answers, you never have to nudge them into reliving every hideous moment, and you never have to worry, and you never have to worry about what it’ll do to their lives if you fuck up. They stay put in the morgue, light-years beyond anything I can do right or wrong, and leave me free to focus on the people who sent them there.”
His narrative voice is perfectly realised, he became a very real man, with just enough foibles to balance his obvious strengths. I was intrigued as I saw the crime scene through his eyes. And it was clear that there was something strange going on in the Spain household: holes carved carefully out of the walls, baby monitors deployed where you would never expect them to be, barbed wire over the loft hatch and a trap in the loft ….
This would be a difficult case for Scorcher: he was trying to support a sister with serious mental issues, he had an inexperienced partner to train guide, and it was at Broken Harbour his family had been scarred by a terrible tragedy, years earlier.
The story moves slowly, because details of people and places, observations of the world, are as important as the painstaking police work that will uncover details of the Spain family’s lives, past and present, and identify suspects.
The characters and the intrigue held me. Though the field of suspects was small I really had no idea who was guilty and what had happened on one terrible night. I really couldn’t see how all of the pieces would fit together, but they did. The resolution was horrifying, but it made a terrible sense.
The balance of all of the elements in this book is close to perfect; there were just a few moments when my interest dipped, when I wished things would move along a little.
My fears that the detective’s backstory would be too prominent, that there would be something too far-fetched in the premise – both of which have problems for me with Tana French’s work in the past – proved to be unfounded.
I read quickly, because I had to keep turning the pages to find out more, and I know that I will go on thinking about what I found out for quite some time
And I definitely think that this is her best book to date