Broken Harbour by Tana French

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.

Broken Harbour
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

What do I have on the shelves for Reading Ireland Month?

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My first thought when I read about Reading Ireland Month was that it would would beautifully with the TBR Dare, because I know that there are Irish books to be read on the Virago bookcase and at various other places around the house.

There are more than I’ll read in March, but I do like to make a list and to have choices.

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The first name that came to mind was Molly Keane. I love her writing but there’s something about her books – a sharpness, a distinctiveness, I don’t know quite what to call it – that makes me inclined to space them out. I haven’t read one for a while though and I think it’s time. Maybe ‘Mad Puppetstown’:

In the early 1900s Easter lives with her Aunt Brenda, her cousins Evelyn and Basil, and their Great-Aunt Dicksie in an imposing country house, Puppetstown, which casts a spell over their childhood. Here they spend carefree days taunting the peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden, shooting snipe and woodcock, hunting, and playing with Patsy, the boot boy. But the house and its inhabitants are not immune to the “little, bitter, forgotten war in Ireland” and when it finally touches their lives all flee to England. All except Aunt Dicksie who refuses to surrender Puppetstown’s magic. She stays on with Patsy, living in a corner of the deserted house while in England the cousins are groomed for Society. But for two of them those wild, lost Puppetstown years cannot be forgotten ….

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 Mary Lavin is best known for her short stories, but she also wrote novels and I have two in my Virago Collection. I most like the look of ‘The House on Clewe Street’

Theodore Coniffe, austere property owner in Castlerampart, looks forward to the birth of an heir when his third and youngest daughter, Lily marries. A son is born, but the father, Cornelius Galloway, is a spendthrift who dies young, leaving the child to the care of Lily and her sisters, Theresa and Sara. Their love for Gabriel is limited by religious propriety and his youth is both protected and restrained. At the age of twenty-one Gabriel runs away to Dublin with Onny, the kitchen maid. Here they tumble into bohemian life. But Gabriel is ill-suited to this makeshift freedom and finds the values of Clewe Street impossible to evade.

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I absolutely love Kate O’Brien‘s writing and I have read all of her books that were published by Virago, but I have one other sitting on a shelf on the next bookcase along. ‘Of Music and Silence’ looks lovely, I’ve been saving it, but I think its moment might have come.

It is the story of two penniless Irish girls who are sent to the Continent to become opera singers. Lovely, vulnerable, unaware, they are first flung into a regime of rigorous training and then released into the fantastic, exacting world of Italian opera in the 1880’s, with its dedicated striving, love, jealousy and passionate friendships.To Clare and Rose, student life and their fellow-students at the pension are as great a revelation after the green quiet of Ireland as the sun-drenched atmosphere of Rome, the picnics on the Campagna, moonlit suppers in trattorie above the sea.Thepension is followed by some of the world’s great opera stages as the girls sing their way upwards towards prima donna roles and fame. And alongside their development as singers the author traces compassionately their development as women, loving and desired, in this forcing house of emotions, where all are obsessed by song, and love is heightened by the spendour of music.

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I found Tana French on the same bookcase, on the next shelf down. I’ve read her first three novels, and I’ve been meaning to read her fourth – ‘Broken Harbour’ – for quite some time.

In the aftermath of a brutal attack that left a woman in intensive care and her husband and young children dead, brash cop Scorcher Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie, struggle with perplexing clues and Scorcher’s haunting memories of a shattering incident from his childhood …

* * * * * * *.

The Collegians by Gerard Griffin is on the same shelf, and it’s on my Classics Club list.

A romantic melodrama set in rural Ireland in the early 19th century, this complex story of love, rivalry, secrecy, and betrayal, based on a real case of 1829, was one of the most successful thrillers of its day

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I’m a little wary of ‘There Were No Windows’ by Norah Hoult, which I know is waiting on the Persephone bookshelf, because it deals with ageing and dementia and the stage of life where my mother is now. But there’s a voice in my head saying that maybe that’s why I should read in now.

Set in London during the blackouts of the Blitz, this 1944 novel describes the last months of Claire Temple, a once-glamorous woman who is now losing her memory. Divided into three ‘acts’, beginning with Claire’s own experience of her dementia, the rest of the book is told through the characters who work for or visit her. As Claire struggles with her memory, the reader must reconstruct not only her life but her identity.

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‘The Wild Geese’ by Bridget Boland is another book I could pluck from the Virago shelves. It’s an epistolary novel – which is always a good thing – and it touches on an aspect of Irish history that I don’t know much about.

In eighteenth-century Ireland, Catholics are forced to practice their religion in secret, they cannot buy or improve their land, nor enter any profession or trade. In this climate a lively underground traffic develops between Ireland and Europe–young boys are smuggled to Catholic schools abroad and many eventually join the armies of foreign princes. If they return to their native land, these “Wild Geese” are in danger of their lives. Through the story of the Kinross family and their letters to one another, we learn of these desperate times: of Brendan’s struggle to maintain the Kinross estate; of the dangers Maurice faces as an outlaw in his own country, and of their sister Catherine and her love for Roderick O’Byrne, a soldier recruiting for Irish regiments in France.

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Maura Laverty is another author I discovered through Virago. I’ve read the two of her novels that Virago published, but I have another novel that hasn’t been reprinted that I found in a second-hand bookshop a year or two ago. ‘Alone We Embark’ is another book I’ve been saving. It’s a plain little hardback, I haven’t been able to find out much about it, but I loved the two books I’ve read more than enough to take this one on trust.

* * * * * * *

I’ve been reading to read Somerville & Ross for ages, and I have just one of their books in the house, somewhere upstairs – ‘In The Vine Country.’

The Irish pair tour Medoc country at the time of the vine harvest. During their stay they dance with the harvesters, drink freshly trodden wine, stay in a barn with dubious bedlinen and visit a grand chateau.

* * * * * * *

Also upstairs is a proof copy of ‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane. I started reading last year, but when the story went in a quite different direction to the one I expected I put it down again. I meant to pick it up again, and I really don’t know why I haven’t.

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The last book I bought in December, before the TBR Dare began, was a newly reissued Victorian novel – ‘The Quest for Fame’ by Charlotte Riddell  – it’s waiting on my bedside table.

After the death of her mother and the loss of her family’s fortune, it falls to young Glen Westley to do what she can for herself and her ailing father. Determined to make her own way in the world, she moves from the West of Ireland to London and works tirelessly to succeed as a novelist, despite the limitations her sex and nationality represent. Having struggled so long for fame, it is at last thrust upon her – but fame always comes at a price.
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There’s just one more book that I can think of, and it’s in the virtual TBR. I read Niall Williams’ early novels and I liked them, but I haven’t read anything of his for years. When I save ‘The History of Rain’ on the Man Booker long-list I thought it was time to try his work again.

Bedbound in her attic room beneath the falling rain, in the margin between this world and the next, Plain Ruth Swain is in search of her father. To find him, enfolded in the mystery of ancestors, Ruthie must first trace the jutting jaw lines, narrow faces and gleamy skin of the Swains from the restless Reverend Swain, her great-grandfather, to grandfather Abraham, to her father, Virgil – via pole-vaulting, leaping salmon, poetry and the three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books piled high beneath the two skylights in her room, beneath the rain.

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That’s pretty much all I can find, and that’s probably the right number of books form me to have a choice and not waste good reading time dithering.

Are there any you would recommend – or any that you’re particularly curious about?

And who are your favourite Irish authors? What are your favourite Irish books?

The Likeness by Tana French

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“The Likeness is Tana French’s second crime novel. It isn’t, strictly, speaking a sequel her first, “Into The Woods”, and it isn’t necessary to read them in order, but there are links.

The main link is Cassie Maddox, one of the detectives at the centre of the investigation that went badly wrong in “Into The Woods”. As this book opens she has left the murder squad to work in domestic violence and is beginning to put her life back in order.

The plot kicks off when she receives an urgent call from her boyfriend Sam O’Neill, who still works in the murder squad. He asks her to drop everything and disguise herself and to visit a murder scene that has disturbed him. Why? The victim has a startling resemblance to Cassie and she is using the name Lexie Madison, the same name that Cassie used during a major undercover operation.

Lexie was one of five residents, all Trinity University students, living in Whitethorn House, a mansion inherited by one of the students. Frank Mackey, Cassie’s supervisor from her days in undercover, thinks the best bet for solving the Lexie murder case is to withhold news of the death from the public. This way, Cassie, armed with information from Lexie’s camera-phone, can pose as Lexie and perhaps get to the bottom of what happened.

Sam is unhappy but Frank is determined and, wanting a solution, Cassie agrees to go undercover again. She is dropped off at Whitethorn, where she is absorbed into the group. It is a strange group – tightly knit and with a seemingly perfect lifestyle and an absolute rule to make no references to past lives.

Cassie is drawn to the warmth and sense of family of the group and she becomes incredibly involved with the Lexie’s life. It even seems that at times she loses sight ofthe boundary between herself and Lexie.

The investigation and the mystery are straightforward but there is much more to this book than that.

“The Likeness” is about class divide and rural towns where the native population is outnumbered by wealthier incomers, about identity and what it is like to live in someone else’s shoes and, most of all it is about friendship and family. Can you cast off your past and build a new family built not on blood ties but on friendship?

Tana French writes beautiful prose and maintains a palpable sense of fear. The story unwinds slowly but it doesn’t let go.

The plot’s premise – that Cassie could assume the identity of a dead girl and her close friends would accept her – and the whole way the investigation was run were difficult to believe. But this book had enough good things about it for Tana French to just about get away with it.

I hope that one day she will write a book with a premise as strong as the other elements. Then she will be extraordinary!

Teaser Tuesdays

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Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Jenn

Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“The French doors were swinging open and Rafe was asleep on the sofa, snoring, in a puddle of full ashtrays and empty glasses and scattered cushions and the smell of stale booze. The piano was speckled with shards of broken glass, curving and wicked on the glossy wood and yellowing keys, and there was a deep fresh goudge on the wall above it: someone had thrown something, a glass or an ashtray, and meant it.”

From “The Likeness” by Tana French.