My Summer Reading: Broken Harbour by Tana French

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Reviewed by Harriet

I was very late in the day in discovering the novels of Tana French. I’d tried her first novel, In the Woods, some years ago and for some reason didn’t take to it. Then, less than a year ago, I read her standalone novel The Wych Elm, and was totally blown away. Since then I’ve devoured five of her ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels and am just embarking on the sixth and (so far) final one of the series.

If you’re not familiar with the series, one of its USPs is that the lead detective in each novel has appeared in a minor role in the previous one. In this case the narrator is Michael ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy, the Murder Squad’s star detective, who we first met in the previous novel, Faithful Place. Here he is teamed up with a young rookie, Richie Curran. The two of them are called out to a shocking murder scene on an estate outside Dublin. Two young children have been smothered in their beds, their father has been stabbed to death and their mother is fighting for her life. At first the father, Pat Spain, seems the obvious suspect, but then Scorcher’s suspicions shift to a young man who is very quickly taken into custody. Scorcher is convinced of his guilt, but Richie has grave doubts. 

So yes, a police procedural. But Broken Harbour is so much more than that. For a start, there’s the setting. The Spain’s house is situated on an estate named Brianstown: built on the site of a holiday resort called Broken Harbour, when the Spains bought, it was advertised in the brochure as the ideal location for young families, but the developers’ money ran out and the Spain’s house sits in the middle of what has become a ghost town, miles from town and the shops. And then Pat lost his job. So – published in 2013, the novel evokes the very real problems faced in Ireland when the massive bubble known as the Celtic Tiger finally burst, bankrupting developers and causing a disastrous drop in the economy.

Then there’s the mystery of the condition of the Spains’ house. It’s only a few years old, but there are huge holes in the walls of the living room and bedrooms, and an inexplicable number of baby monitors dotted round the house and even in the loft. What on earth do these mean? The solution is late in coming, and has a surprisingly important relevance to the solution of the case.

And, as well as having to solve this profoundly puzzling case, Scorcher is having to deal with his young sister Dina, who suffers from serious mental health issues. Always distressed and unstable, Dina has been pushed further over the edge by the fact that Scorcher is having to spend time in what was once Broken Harbour. Why? Because when the Kennedys were children, they used to spend their summer holidays in a caravan there – and one summer their troubled mother walked into the sea and drowned herself. Dina believes that her brother will be badly affected by the associations of the place, something Scorcher strenuously (perhaps too strenuously) denies.

Also fascinating, and beautifully observed, is the relationship between Scorcher and Richie. At first Scorcher is very happy with his new young partner, and their very different interview techniques seem like a perfect blend to get the desired result in some challenging circumstances: Richie is gentle and treats the interviewees with what seems like great understanding, while Scorcher goes in for the kill, often very roughly. But these differences gradually drive a wedge between them and eventually the relationship is terminally threatened by a revelation which obviously I can’t discuss here. I will say, though, that it raises interesting questions about the ethics of policing.

Then, of course, as in any mystery story, there’s the question of who the real perpetrator is. The novel is so beautifully constructed that the reader’s sympathy keeps shifting between alternative suspects. I was rooting like mad for one of them to be innocent, but there were times when this seemed to be incredibly unlikely. And then there was the final revelation…

Finally, there was the question of Scorcher’s own mental health. I obviously can’t really talk about this here, but believe me, there are revelations at the end which explain a great deal, and make you question how reliable a narrator Scorcher really is.

Tana French’s writing is superb – I haven’t quoted anything here, but her use of language and her perception of peoples’ inner workings make it unsurprising that her work has been described as literary fiction. I’ve just discovered that she’s publishing a new novel in the autumn, another standalone. There’s an interview about it here. I can’t wait.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Tana French, Broken Harbour (Hodder, 2013). 978-0340977651, 544pp, paperback.

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