Book review: ‘Broken Harbor,’ by Tana French

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the start time for author Tana French’s July 28 appearance at Politics and Prose. She will discuss her novel “Broken Harbor” at the Northwest Washington bookstore at 6 p.m. Saturday. This version has been corrected.

July 22, 2012

Tana French’s new novel begins as a police procedural and evolves into a psychological thriller of exceptional complexity and depth.

At the outset, two Dublin detectives, the veteran Mick Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie Curran, are summoned to a horrific crime scene in a failed housing development near Broken Harbor, outside Dublin. Patrick Spain and his two small children are dead, and his wife, Jenny, is in critical condition. The children were smothered in their beds; the husband and wife were found in the kitchen with multiple stab wounds. Numerous holes in the walls of the house and an animal trap in the attic complicate the mystery.

The wife survives but cannot speak for several days as the detectives struggle to discover who attacked the family and why. Lacking evidence of forced entry or robbery, they see at least three possibilities: Either the wife or the husband could have attacked the others, or some third party might have entered their home with murderous intent.

The holes and the trap are a secondary puzzle. It emerges that sensible, well-liked Patrick had become convinced that he heard a small animal entering his attic and menacing his family. We don’t know for a long time whether this creature actually existed, if Patrick’s obsession with it was a sign of mental breakdown, or if someone was causing the noises to drive him mad.

It’s an ingenious plot, but there’s much more to the story. At first, Mick Kennedy, a man with a healthy ego (“I am bloody good at my job”), patronizes his new partner for his lower-class ways, but Richie wins his respect. Still, they soon clash over the identity of the killer. I think French is here suggesting the problems that arise when detectives follow their gut instincts and thereby too often condemn innocent people to prison.


“Broken Harbor” by Tana French (Viking)

The American-born author is 39 and has lived in Dublin since 1990. She studied acting at Trinity College and acted in the theater before turning to fiction. In “Broken Harbor,” she portrays the anguish that Ireland’s economic collapse has brought to her generation. Patrick had lost his job, and the family faced the loss of their home. Did this prospect drive him to murder? The development they lived in was filled with abandoned and half-finished houses — ghost estates, they’re called — a stark symbol of Ireland’s distress. French has in interviews expressed her scorn for the bankers and government officials who urged young people to buy houses they couldn’t afford.

Her novel is replete with moments of madness. By my count, there are six major characters whose mental stability is in doubt. The most obvious is Kennedy’s sister, Dina, who is beautiful, intelligent and, he says bitterly, “crazy as a bag of cats.” In several painful scenes, Kennedy must choose between pursuing the murder investigation and rushing off to care for his sister during a meltdown. But it’s also true that Kennedy’s own obsession with his job — his passion to protect a world that is “turning feral” — can drive him to the edge. That this case takes him back to Broken Harbor, a vacation spot where tragedy devastated his family during his youth, further unnerves him. “My mind had turned slippery and treacherous as black ice,” he admits during one tormented moment.

“Broken Harbor” provides a fascinating and suspenseful plot, believable characters and writing that is precise, knowing and lyrical. Underlying it all is a formidable intelligence, one that moves relentlessly from a family tragedy to the ugly side of police work to the sorrows of a generation.

French first gained attention when her “In the Woods” (2007) won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry awards for best first crime novel. Her second and third novels were also widely admired, and “Broken Harbor,” her fourth, proves anew that she is one of the most talented crime writers alive. Her vision is both bleak and compassionate: As a novelist, she makes us want urgently to know who killed those children; as a mother, she makes us grieve for them. The title she’s given this remarkable book suggests that, while we seek safe, calm harbors in which to live our lives, the ones we find will often prove to be dark, storm-tossed and irreversibly broken.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.

Tana French will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore at 6 p.m. on Saturday, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW

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