Of all the detectives to take the lead as narrator of a Dublin’s Murder Squad novel from Tana French, Michael “Scorcher” Kennedy should have been the one we could count on the most. Not the most likable, surely that is The Likeness’s Cassie Maddox, nor the most experienced, that honor goes to Frank Mackey from Faithful Place, not even the one we most want to see redeemed, that one is all yours, Rob Ryan (In the Woods) – Scorcher is the one who plays by the rules, who doesn’t let emotions get in the way of the case, and who has earned the best solve-rate on the squad because of it. If ever a French mystery was going to break from tradition and have a protagonist who does everything right, we would expect Broken Harbor to be it.
It doesn’t take long for Scorcher himself to let us know that is not how things are going to go down. His very first words to us are about what should have been with the case out at Brianstown, formerly known as Broken Harbor – “Here’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he says, “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.” He also assures us, “I was the perfect man for this case.” Anytime someone starts a story with how things should have been, you can be certain what they actually were was a giant cluster-f**k. The fact that the case in question involves the murders of several members of the same family, including children, establishes that readers hoping for a simple, procedural mystery from the author that will, for once, leave their hearts out of it, should be put away.
French doesn’t do simple. Sometimes to her detriment, but far more often to her credit, her stories aren’t so much mysteries as dramas with a mystery driving the action. Her narrators, all working at various times on the same murder squad in Dublin, to one degree or another are each taken in by “that one case” that hits too close to home for he or she to keep a level head. This is not to say that the mysteries in her novels aren’t compelling – they are, believe me – it is just to say they are not the point. The point is how various detectives, victims and villains try to keep their sanity, their families, and their lives as they look deep into a dazzling, terrifying mess of life, love, and murder.
If there is one thing I can point to that separates Tana French from the masses of “just OK” writers out there, it is her ability to twist words in just the right way and bring the readers, sometimes struggling against her, into the moment, right there next to her characters.
“Fiona bit down on her bottom lip. The air stank of cigarette smoke and singed wool – she had dropped hot ash on her coat, somewhere in there – and there was a dank, bitter smell coming off her, spreading on her breath and seeping out of her pores. Interesting fact from the front lines: raw-grief smells like ripped leaves and splintered branches, a jagged green shriek.”
You see what I mean? Brilliant.
Because I want to keep this as spoiler free as possible, I will have to be a bit vague here, but rest assured that French knows how to hook readers with plot as well as language. The mystery of Broken Harbor may not be the most compelling (again, I have to give that honor to The Likeness, with In the Woods a close second), but it is compelling and will keep readers turning page after page to see how things unfold. A family has been murdered in what was meant to be a neighborhood of the future in an Ireland full of prosperity. The murders mirror the death of that prosperity, as the recession hits this optimistic generation square in the jaw. From the start, we want to know – we must know – how and why this happened.
As usual, French efficiently provides a back-story for our man, lead detective Scorcher Kennedy, that helps the reader make sense of his sometimes questionable judgment. Some of her best work in the book centers around Kennedy’s longing to find a partner (a detective partner, not a lover-partner) who he can truly. We understand, we get it, partly because the words she gives him are perfect, and partly because those of us who read In the Woods remember a partnership that seemed to fit the bill so well, between Cassie and Rob. Our solidarity with Scorcher, the way we root for him as readers, adds to the importance of the case and helps mitigate some of the weakness of the procedural elements of the novel.
And there are some weaknesses. Somewhere mid-way through the novel, French begins to spend a tremendous amount of time on plot-points that never quite materialize into anything that warrants such detail. While her writing is always good enough to keep the reader from getting bored, it is not quite good enough to keep us from getting frustrated, especially when the end comes and it is clear that while everything had a purpose, much of her exposition could have been cut in half and achieved the same thing.
I said it would have to be vague.
Broken Harbor has its tedious patches, but taken as a whole it is a satisfying and often moving read. I will continue to buy every novel French writes as soon as it hits the shelf until she writes one that is otherwise.
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