Nursing a nasty summer cold, I was comforted by having Tana French’s new Broken Harbor to keep my mind off the sniffles and scratchy throat.
Following her pattern of linking characters from book to book, French focuses here on Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, who was a minor character in Faithful Place. Told in Kennedy’s thoughtful voice, the novel concerns a horrendous attack on a family: two children suffocated, father stabbed to death, mother barely surviving stab wounds. The crimes occurred at Brianstown, a failing housing estate on the coast. But Kennedy knows it by its former name, Broken Harbor—a summer vacation spot that holds painful family memories.
This is a crime novel, make no mistake. Kennedy and his rookie partner Curran follow painstaking procedure, attend hideous post-mortems, grill grieving relatives and sketchy neighbors, and track down the smallest details of the victims’ lives. There were a few times when I felt that the details and detectives’ disagreements about what the details mean were swamping the narrative. But as Kennedy says: “It’s only on TV that the story ends when the confession’s on tape and the handcuffs click home. In a real investigation, that click is just the beginning.”
Broken Harbor is also a novel of ideas, about the nature of evil and how to understand it. Kennedy tells Curran that most people get killed because they’re looking for it—that they’ve made decisions that lead to that extremity—that murder isn’t random. Curran counters that he’s seen “loads of bad stuff happen to people who never asked for it.”
Although he’s coming off a career misstep—which I assume is the mess described in Faithful Place—Kennedy has a strong “solve” rate for murders. An introspective, carefully-controlled man, he’s thought about his place in the world, the meaning of his work. I loved this passage French gives him:
In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.
I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you . . . think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked . . . and the murder rate was scraping zero.
Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world starts to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second the want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.
The final feral step is murder. We stand between that and you. We say, when no one else will, There are rules here. There are limits. There are boundaries that don’t move.
I leave it for you to discover whether those boundaries have moved for Kennedy by story’s end—but I think he’s right in noting how very feral our civilization has become.
This is the third novel I’ve read this year that focuses on the shattered Irish economy. The parable of Ireland’s bubble and bust makes for bleak reading: imagining what can happen when individuals’—and a nation’s—dreams turn to dust.