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REVIEW: Broken Harbour by Tana French

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.

broken harbor Tana FrenchScorcher’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.

Somewhat reverentially,

Dabney

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I loved romances when, back in the mid 70's, in junior high, I read every Barbara Cartland novel I could check out from the library. Then, thanks to a savvy babysitter, I got my hands on the hot stuff. To this day I can remember how astonishingly steamy I found Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. I abandoned romance when I went to college and didn't pick one up again until 2007 when I got my first Kindle. Since then, I’ve read countless romances; loved many, liked more, hated some. Most of what I read is historical and contemporary romance, but I’m open to almost any genre. I like my books to have sizzle, wit, and plots that make sense. I’d take sexy over sweet any day. I’m a sucker for smart heroes and smart-mouthed heroines. When not reading or writing about reading, or wishing I could rule the world, I'm meddling in the lives of my kids--I have four, ages 17 to 21--, managing my husband's practice, doing bossy volunteer work, and hanging out with Dr. Feelgood.

13 Comments

  1. Karenmc
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 13:17:57

    Dabney, this is just to let you know that I picked up Faithful Place the other day at my UBS (the owner trotted from one section to another until she found what I’d asked for). I hope to get to it soon. The paragraphs you quote from Broken Harbor have me salivating.

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  2. Amanda Byrne
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 14:38:41

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who was a little let down by this book. It’s still head and shoulders above a lot of what’s out there, and her prose is outstanding. She even took a seemingly insurmountable task (turning Kennedy into a likeable main character) and not only succeeded, but excelled. What I had a problem with wasn’t so much the ending, but how she approached it.

    But nothing, in my opinion, tops the emotional heights she reached in The Likeness. That book has haunted me since the first time I read it three years ago.

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  3. Darlynne
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 16:00:59

    I liked Broken Harbor more than you did. The aspect of this story I enjoyed most was the seemingly–to me–solid police work. There’s a long paragraph where Scorcher thinks through in his head all the innumerable next steps that need to happen almost simultaneously. I have no experience with crime solving and could not suppress my admiration for all the detailed details that appear to go into an investigation.

    The past impinging so mightily on the present, the gorgeous writing–both put me in mind of Robert Goddard, which is about the highest praise I can give. And the idea that anyone is in control of their lives? Just give over, because these characters felt so clearly in control and the only one who came out of it less wounded than the others … never mind.

    Even though there’s no real order to Ms. French’s books, I do think reading them in publication order makes a difference. Each builds on a character from the previous story, which makes me wonder if we’ll see Richie Curran in the next.

    Great review, thank you.

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  4. Isobel Carr
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 16:08:45

    I’m totally intrigued, but could you explain what you mean by “not only are there mysteries left unsolved–there are hints the answers might be found in the realm of the supernatural”? I’m not really on board for a mystery with no actual solution (that seems to really break the promise to the reader IMO).

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  5. Dabney
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 17:45:44

    @Darlynne: I’m with you on the police work. That was one of my favorite parts of the novel. I particularly liked her savvy awareness of technology and the way Scorcher and his team thought about the clues things like message boards provided.

    @Isobel Carr: The main mystery is certainly solved although I struggled to accept the whys the narrator gives for the actions of the perpetrators. The mysteries left unsolved are not who killed the Spains but are rather other plot lines for which no clear resolution is offered. In Ms. French’s first book, she tells the tale of two deaths, one in the present and one in the past. She never gives a clear explanation for the one in the past which drove many readers batty but garnered admiration from others. I think it’s a choice she makes very deliberately.

    @Karenmc: I adore Faithful Place. The narrator is my age give or take a year and much of the book is set in 1985, a period I remember vividly. I hope you love it!

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  6. DS
    Aug 07, 2012 @ 19:44:37

    I’m listening to Broken Harbor right now. The Audible narrator is excellent.

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  7. Katie
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 00:12:27

    Her first two books were amazing and I found her writing so lyrical and beautiful. They were some of the very few books I could reread for the writing alone (I almost never read a book twice). The last two just didn’t do it for me.

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  8. Marianne McA
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 03:37:49

    Sold. Or, at least, sold me on the author – following Darlynne’s advice to read them in publication order, I’m starting with the first.
    Thanks for the review.

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  9. Patricia Eimer
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 06:31:28

    It sounds good. It’s hard to beat Faithful Place as a novel so I think I’ll give this one a try and not blame Ms. French if it’s not quite as good.

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  10. Dabney
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 09:05:54

    @Katie: It’s interesting to me how varied reader response is to a book. I have liked all of her books. Even this book with its weaknesses was a great read and I can’t wait for her next.

    @Marianne McA: I hope you like her–I met her once (she’s the only author I’ve ever reviewed that I’ve actually met) and was struck by how distinctive she was. Her books are as well.

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  11. Maggie
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 17:29:27

    Your criticism of this ending reminds of the criticism of In The Woods, and GOD I loved that book! I think it’s my favourite of the series. Ms French can write a tortured hero like nobody’s business. I have this fantasy that once she writes a few more characters in the series she’ll go back to the “original” mystery of Adam/Rob and all the subsequent characters will show up to help solve it :)

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    Jun 14, 2013 @ 20:36:45

    [...] Broken Harbour by Tana French (Mystery).  (Review here) [...]

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