Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tana French composes a chilling mystery for a summer’s reading.

I have read a couple of Tana French’s thrillers, always enjoying them, but I resisted this one for some reason.  But then when sent a teaser about it, I decided to give in.  It’s a powerful tale.

Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor (464 pages, Viking Adult, $27.95), the title of this novel, names a seaside location on the Irish coast.  During the boom of the early twentieth century, developers renamed it Brianstown, and it is in this faceless and only partially completed development that Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy is called to a hideous case.

Someone has murdered, or attempted to murder an entire family living in this already decrepit development.  Pat Spain and his wife Jenny are found lying in pools of blood in the sun-filled kitchen, and upstairs in separate bedrooms, young Jack and Emma are also found dead.

As the police arrive and the scene is examined, it is first discovered that Jenny is hanging onto life in spite of several knife wounds.  The first thought is that these wounds might be self-inflicted, but their disposition makes that unlikely.  Pat’s wounds, a couple of which would easily have been mortal, might well be self-inflicted, but Kennedy, with his young and urban-smart partner, Curran, who’s really on his first big case, have trouble coming up with motive or intent.  Nothing seems to have been stolen, and although there are several gaping holes in the walls, there is no certain way to connect them to the crime.

Everyone talks about Pat and Jenny and the kids as a model family.  They moved to Brianstown for the space and the location near the sea.  Many other amenties were promised by the developers, but they were never more than promises.  When the economy tanked—the recession in Ireland was as bad as anywhere—even building stopped and many houses remained half-completed.  Still Pat and jenny made the best of it.  The kids went to the best schools and pre-schools, the parents socialized widely, and friends and realtives alike admired the couple.

Some months before the tragedy, however, Pat lost his job, and rather than finding a new one quickly, he sank into the ranks of the unemployed.  Having been a champion bread-winner, he was hard hit by this; but jenny rallied round and it seemed that everything was still okay for the family.

As Kennedy and Curran investigate, they find a different story; or, in fact, many different stories.  For one thing, a young web-designer, who turns out to have had a crush on Pat and Jenny as a couple and on Jenny especially, from their days as teenagers, turns out to have been camped out in a nearby house, where he could watch all the doings of the Spain household through binoculars.  He would be a prime suspect, but he is so quick to confess to the crimes that it is almost impossible to believe him.

Young Curran seems to want to pin the crime on Pat, but Kennedy feels that he is heroic in many ways, and can hardly imagine him murdering his family.  This drives the partners apart, and creates a whole of lot of tension around the case.

Even worse, though, is Kennedy’s own history with Broken Harbor.  It seems his mother killed herself when the family was on holiday there many years before.  His own relation to the place would in any case therefore be fraught, but it is even more tormenting because his young seemingly schizophrenic sister keeps reminding him of those horrors.

Out of this psychological maelstrom, French creates an even more harrowing and powerful tale that is as Irish as it is twenty-first century, and as filled with contemporary concerns as it is with the age-old tenets of detective fiction.  This is a true triumph of the genre.

Tana French

Broken Harbor is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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