Tana French’s Irish Gothic noir delivers more than the average crime novel.
This is the fourth in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Each novel stands alone, but takes a character from the previous one and is told from his or her point of view. The first, In The Woods (2007), focuses on a cop with a past he has managed so far to run away from. The second, The Likeness (2005), has as its protagonist a female character from In the Woods. Frank Mackey, the main character in Faithful Place (2010), also appeared in The Likeness.
Mick ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy, an important, but minor, character in Faithful Place, is the first-person narrator of Broken Harbour. The implicit unreliability of first-person narrative is enhanced if you have read the previous book, where Kennedy came across rather differently from the way he wants to portray himself here. In Broken Harbour his voice is confident and knowing and he sees himself as someone who has everything under meticulous control, but his loneliness, his prickly self-protectiveness and his insecurities are still evident to the reader. He has the highest solve-rate in the department, and he is presently partnered with, and training, a young rookie, Richie Curran, to whom he attempts to pass on his knowledge and experience.
Two years before the events of Broken Harbour, one of Kennedy’s cases went awry and he hasn’t been assigned a major one since; this is his chance to become the star again. But the investigation brings him back to a place that holds memories of both childhood joy and terrible trauma, and part of the suspense of the story is in how well he will continue to manage the long-term effects of that time, and in the gradual revelation of what those events actually were.
A family has been massacred in a place called Brianstown, once the beautiful seaside holiday hamlet Broken Harbour, but now a modern housing estate started during the Irish economic boom and left half-built after the crash:
‘Jaysus,’ Richie said … ‘The village of the damned.’
… As we got deeper into the estate, the houses got sketchier, like watching a film in reverse. Pretty soon they were random collections of walls and scaffolding, with the odd gaping hole for a window; where the house-fronts were missing the rooms were littered with broken ladders, lengths of pipe, rotting cement bags.
In the middle of this desolate, half-abandoned township, two small children and their father have been murdered and the mother is critically injured. The father, Patrick Spain, quickly becomes the main suspect, although there are anomalies that Kennedy initially doesn’t want to admit. It’s clear that something odd has been going on in this family. The Spains’ house – one of the finished ones – is decorated in typically aspirant middle-class fashion, and with obvious pride and taste. But there are gaping holes in the walls, baby monitors in every room and a video camera and brutal animal trap in the attic. Patrick Spain’s computer reveals some very strange posts on some weird sites.
But soon enough, there is evidence of a stalker who has been watching the Spains’ house from a lair in an abandoned building, and suspicion shifts to him. Jennifer Spain’s sister, Fiona, tells them that Jennifer had complained of someone entering the house when she was out. Both the stalker, when captured, and Fiona, insist the Spains were the perfect couple – high-school sweethearts who had married young and lived the dream. They’d become more conservative once they married and had children, buying into the whole boom-time promise of comfort and security, but as with many others, the promise had been broken. Patrick had recently lost his job and the Spains had run out of money.
As well as heading the investigation, Kennedy has to deal with his sister Dina – beautiful, but ‘crazy as a bag of cats’ – whose occasional madness has been triggered by the eruption of Broken Harbour into her life again. She warns him that he shouldn’t go back there at all, and her own actions threaten to bring about his downfall. Kennedy himself foreshadows disaster several times, again adding to the narrative suspense as we wait to see what he means:
Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.
… Only, somewhere far inside my spine and deep in the palms of my hands, something hummed; like a sound too low to hear, like a warning, like a cello string when a tuning fork strikes the perfect tone to call it awake.
… When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. This is the one I clench tight because of how sharp it slices. Cold still air, a weak ray of sun glowing on the wall outside the window, smell of stale bread and apples.
The novel is full of deception, even from Curran, and self-deception, including Kennedy’s own that has kept him functioning for so long. The frame of the police-procedural delivers an essentially psychological thriller, concerned with the nature of evil, and the influence of the uncanny – if only the banal evil that is the result of despair, and the uncanny and monstrous constructs of the human psyche. It’s a novel about obsession, insanity and people, their dreams shattered, who are pushed beyond the boundaries of the bearable into a new reality where none of the old rules apply.
French is a sophisticated and unflinching writer who takes us confidently through the death of children, the gory aftermath of violence, post-mortems and unutterable sadness. Ireland, damaged by the recession, is evoked with bleak but loving certainty and the characters are vivid and convincing. The ending, a twist in the tail that is satisfyingly inevitable in hindsight, forces complex moral choices upon several of these characters and they do not all survive unscathed.
French has created her own sub-genre of Irish Gothic noir; she writes beautifully and her insight into her protagonists delivers far more than the usual crime novel.
Tana French Broken Harbour, Hodder & Stoughton, 2012, PB, 544pp, $29.99
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