Broken Harbor is crime writer Tana French’s compelling tale about the horrific multiple-murder of a family in rural Ireland. But if gore is not your thing, don’t be put off: the crime has already occurred by the story’s opening, and Broken Harbor — released earlier this month in Canada, and due out in the States on July 24 — is very much a police procedural married to a classic whodunnit. Its talented author will keep you guessing until the closing pages.
The protagonist here is a 10-year veteran of the Dublin Murder Squad, Detective Sergeant Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, who’s been paired with a rookie partner, Richie Curran. Richie isn’t just wet behind the ears; he’s so damp he’s threatening to inundate the squad room by his mere presence. Kennedy has to lead him through the fine points not covered in the policing course: how to dress while on the job, why he should choose a specific type of car from the motor pool, how to carry himself on the ground with other officers, and how to handle witnesses in order to get the most information from them. But the case at hand isn’t only an opportunity to train Richie; it’s also a chance to see whether he’s up to the mark, capable of handling the trauma and complexities of serious policing.
Kennedy doesn’t need these distractions; he’s got enough on his plate as it is. A wanker in the squad is jealous of Kennedy and out to make him look bad, and his boss, Superintendent O’Kelly, believes in giving the people on his team enough rope to hang themselves. Kennedy has been handed this family-murder case because he has one of the highest solve-rates in the unit. His success is based on his belief that good police work doesn’t only stem from training, but is primal. “When I wonder whether there was any point to my day,” he says, “I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did.”
He’s about to get his chance. In a coastal housing estate of half-vacant, jerry-built homes an hour’s drive north from Dublin, a grisly crime has been unearthed: Patrick Spain and his two young children have been brutally stabbed to death. Spain’s wife, the sole surviving member of their immediate family, has been left in critical condition, stabbed multiple times and now barely clinging to life. The bodies of the children show no signs of a struggle; they seem to have been murdered in their beds while they slept.
Pat Spain had been unemployed for months, a victim of the recession that has swept across Ireland. Although he was forced to give up his family’s expensive car, he somehow found the money to stage an elaborate birthday party for his daughter. Everything in this murder investigation points to a family member being responsible, and since he was on the verge of poverty and trying desperately to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, the father is the odds-on favorite for the crimes.
But there are anomalies at the crime scene. It looks as though someone has been through the house, searching for something; and files on the family computer shows signs of having been hacked by an intruder, someone who was not a member of the family. Coupled with evidence that someone had previously been watching the Spains, this case is proving to be far from simple.
And there’s an elephant in the room. Years earlier, Kennedy’s own family had taken their holidays near the scene of the crime, and his younger sister, Dina, witnessed their mother’s suicide in the coastal waters close by. Now bipolar and off her meds, Dina’s vivid memories of that day and her out-of-control behavior threaten to jeopardize the case and even end Kennedy’s career.
In what must be a literary record, most of the first 200 pages of Broken Harbor focus on the Murder Squad’s initial visit to the crime scene — constituting a tour de force of police procedures. But it’s not only a wealth of well-researched detail that’s on offer here; grabbing attention with a first-person point of view and a driving narrative voice, author French strips her readers of their detachment, drawing them into the vortex of this dark, but all-too-believable, tale.
Perfectly paced, with nuanced characters set against a backdrop of heart-rending conflict and dialogue that reads as though you’re a fly on the wall, Broken Harbor shows once again that Tana French is not only one of the most assured crime writers of our times, but one of the best emerging writers in any genre. A winner of the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards for her first novel, 2007’s In the Woods, in her fourth outing French continues to exhibit the freshness, quality writing and masterful plotting that her readers have come to expect. ◊
Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.