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Broken Harbor

by Tana French

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating
User Rating 4 Star Rating (2 Reviews)


Broken Harbor by Tana French
© Viking
Viking, 2012

It is October in Dublin, Ireland. A thick, cold, grey Tuesday looms and murders most foul have been reported to the murder squad. The Spain family are the victims. The father has been brutally stabbed and the two children suffocated in their upstairs bedrooms. The mother, who cradles her head on her husband's dead body, is barely alive. There is no sign of forced entry or defensive wounds. So, who did it?

Only Tana French could have unraveled the answer in such an entertaining and engaging manner. Broken Harbor is a tightly scripted police procedural and psychological drama. Her brilliant writing, as in her three previous novels, places the reader in the thick of things as this first person narrative unfolds. The tension builds slowly, incrementally. What a confession means becomes a central question. The coppers have to prove "who-done-it," not why it was committed.

Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, a minor character from Faithful Place, her prior novel, is the protagonist who tells the story. He has a history with the murder squad (a fictional group French has created for each of her stories) and he has a history with Brianstown, the Dublin suburb where the murders took place.

Four major issues wend their ways through the novel. First is the heinous murder of a father and two children in their home. Did the mother kill her family then stab herself nearly to death? Then there was "something" in the attic of the house that led the father on a long, irrational chase through Internet chat rooms in an effort to find out what to do. Did his deteriorating mental condition lead him to commit the murders and kill himself? In addition to his police work, Mick must deal with Dina, his mentally unstable sister, who comes in and out of his life. Given the location of the murder, this relationship takes on added significance; something happened there in their youth. Finally, Mick himself is an issue. He had not performed well on an earlier case and this is a chance to redeem his career as he copes with family issues and memories that he prefers to repress and he must train a new detective in the course of the investigation.
Brianstown is a new estate, a planned urban development, which has gone bust in the economic downturn. That area used to be called Broken Harbor when Mick was a boy and visited the seaside with his family. The terrible event that has haunted him and his siblings since their last visit happened there. That event continues to reverberate in his personal life and colors his perceptions of the present crime. In Gaelic, Broken Harbor is "breacadh" or "daybreak," but it now a dark and foreboding place. What will the light of day reveal?

A hunting leitmotif punctuates Mick's efforts to bring the killer to justice. Scorcher says, "Murder Ds are hunters; you want to bring home a white lion that you tracked down in a dark, hissing jungle, not a domestic kitty gone rabid." Even the media, especially pernicious in Europe, come within Scorcher's sights: "In my book, the media are a necessary evil: they live off the animal inside us, they bait their front pages with secondhand blood for the hyenas to snuffle up, but they come in useful often enough that you want to stay on their good side." The murderer is "a rabid animal and we are in his den." Whether and how that murderer will be roused from his den is the focus of this marvelous novel.

Broken Harbor is also a story of coping with failure, how a family copes with a dream denied, how individuals cope with the vicissitudes of life, and how the constant reminders continues to press upon each person. French has said this was "a book about following the rules; about what happens when you…do everything you are supposed to do, and then the rules let you down utterly." French's investigation of these inter-related themes and issues underscores and deepens the plot.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
User Reviews

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 3 out of 5
Worthy of its reviews?, Member christallis

A major mystery for this reader is why this novel has received such universal praise. Is it the use of setting and events as emblematic of Ireland's recent economic history? Is it the artful creation of an all-encompassing gloom? Is it the presentation of generally unlikeable characters? I can't figure this one out. What is easy to conclude is the murderer. No suspense there. Even so, the book is worth reading if only to find out whether you think it merits its hype. Or not.

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