Aug 7 2012
Dear Ms. French–
OK, deep breath and here goes. I love your work but I’ve read this book three times now and I really don’t get it. Broken Harbour is obsessively readable and jammed with sumptuous language. It has a fabulous first person narrator with an idiosyncratic voice. And yet, Broken Harbour didn’t add up for me. It’s a kick-ass read, to be sure, but, when I finished it and gave it some serious thought, I wasn’t quite sure what happened. In a mystery, that is a disappointment.
Broken Harbour is recounted by Detective Michael Kennedy–his colleagues at the fictional Murder Squad, based in Dublin, all call him “Scorcher.” Readers of your other books will remember Scorcher from the last book in the series, Faithful Place, where he was, frankly, a pompous ass. One of the pleasures of Broken Harbour is seeing Scorcher as he defines himself–the traits that made him unlikable in the previous novel are here shown to be, if not likable, exceedingly useful. As he says,
I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place. This year I’m down to second, but the top guy got a run of slam dunks, domestics where the suspect practically slapped the cuffs on his own wrists and served himself up on a plate with applesauce. I pulled the tough ones, the nobody-seen-nothing junkie-on-junkie drudgery, and I still scored.
Scorcher’s boss hands Scorcher and his newbie partner Richie Curran a horrific case: in a house out in one of Dublin’s dying “luxury” estates built during the boom, a family has been slaughtered. The husband was stabbed to death, the two young children suffocated, and the wife lies in the hospital, barely alive, covered in wounds and bruises. The development, now called Brianstown, was once a seaside town called Broken Harbour… Scorcher flinches when he hears the name.
In Broken Harbour, as in all your books, there are two story-lines: the present mystery is connected to the past in ways that matter tremendously to your protagonists. For Scorcher, Broken Harbour is the most significant place of his childhood. It is there his family vacationed each summer and it is there his mother walked into the ocean and never returned. Scorcher and his family are still, years later, damaged by Broken Harbour –the children are estranged from their terminally depressed father, one sister is relentlessly happy, the other, seriously mentally ill.
As Scorcher and Richie try to piece together what happened at Jenny and Pat Spains’ house, Scorcher’s past–especially his crazy sister Dina–keeps tripping him up. He’s just barely holding it together and there’s nothing that matters more to Scorcher Kennedy than being one hundred percent in control. It doesn’t help that the case, the deeper Scorcher delves into it, is full of yokes–clues to us Yanks–that don’t add up. The Spains’ house, which Jenny kept spotless, has random holes punched in its walls, a huge steel trap with massive teeth on the attic floor, and baby monitors everywhere though the Spains’ children, Jack and Emma, were too old for such things. Even when, halfway through the book, Scorcher collars the perfect suspect, the case keeps slipping through his fingers, leaving him frustratingly unsure he knows what really went down.
The first 80% of this book is terrific–I couldn’t stop reading it, drawn into Scorcher’s mind, the case, the Spains, young Richie, and the investigative genius of the Murder Squad. I wondered as I furiously read how you would tie all the myriad ends together.
I don’t think you did. At the tale’s end, not only are there mysteries left unsolved–there are hints the answers might be found in the realm of the supernatural (in this, Broken Harbour is much like your debut novel In the Woods)–but the reasons given for why a host of characters act as they do are not supported by either their behaviors or personalities. Scorcher is a somewhat unreliable storyteller–you make that clear in the beginning of the novel with the explanation he gives for his nickname, an explanation contradicted in your last book Faithful Place. But within the context of his telling of the story, the people he describes don’t, ultimately, behave in accordance with his portrayals. In the last portion of the book, I found myself baffled, unable to credit the resolutions presented.
My reservations about the viability of your story do not extend to any reservations I have about recommending Broken Harbour. Your book is literary crack–it’s almost impossible to put down once begun. Scorcher’s voice is outstanding and the ways he and his team solve the sad story of the Spains is riveting. Your vision of modern Ireland, wounded, angry, still just a handspan away from economic collapse, is fascinating. Even the weaker plot of Scorcher’s troubled past is interesting–although heavy-handed. The prose is vividly brilliant–God, can you write. There are reams of paragraphs like these two, filled with sentences I read again and again just for the joy of it.
There have been so many of them. Run-down rooms in tiny mountain-country stations, smelling of mold and feet; sitting rooms crammed with flowered upholstery, simpering holy cards, all the shining medals of respectability; council-flat kitchens where the baby whined through a bottle of Coke and the ashtray overflowed onto the cereal-crusted table; our own interview rooms, still as sanctuaries, so familiar that blindfolded I could have put my hand on that piece of graffiti, that crack in the wall. They are the rooms where I have come eye to eye with a killer and said, You. You did this.
I remember every one. I save them up, a deck of richly colored collector’s cards to be kept in velvet and thumbed through when the day has been too long for sleep. I know whether the air was cool or warm against my skin, how light soaked into worn yellow paint or ignited the blue of a mug, whether the echoes of my voice slid up into high corners or fell muffled by heavy curtains and shocked china ornaments. I know the grain of wooden chairs, the drift of a cobweb, the soft drip of a tap, the give of carpet under my shoes. In my father’s house there are many mansions: if somehow I earn one, it will be the one I have built out of these rooms.
Broken Harbour isn’t even half as good as your last book, the dazzling Faithful Place. It is my least favorite of your novels. Its ending left me thwarted and wanting. It’s still worth reading. I give it a B.