Tana French has been a favorite of mine ever since her 2007 debut, the engrossing In the Woods. Since then, she has written three more novels, all of them mysteries, and all of them showcasing an interest in and skill for creating knowable characters that I have rarely found in my other ventures into the mystery genre. I love a cheap thrill as much as the next person, but French manages to combine the tension of solving a crime with the tensions inherent to the people exploring that crime. In French’s novels, the detectives judge the criminals because they’re judging themselves. Broken Harbour is number four in what are now called the “Dublin Murder Squad” books, because each book focuses on a member of this squad, though they are all self-contained works.
Like French herself, who takes so much care to explain the events leading up to each crime, our detective, Mick Kennedy (called “Shockey”), is as interested in finding out the “why” behind a crime as he is in discovering the “how.” For Shockey, finding a reason for the crime is symbolic: he needs to know there is, in a fact, a reason for why things happen. His schizophrenic sister, Dina, for whom he has cared nearly his entire life, challenges Shockey when she tells him, “There is no why.” When he is asked to solve the triple homicide of a family in the same city where his mother killed herself when he was sixteen (the titular Broken Harbour), Shockey’s desperation to find reasons behind the crime almost derails the entire investigation.
The family is the seemingly idyllic Spain family. Pat and Jenny Spain have been together since they were teenagers, and now, in their newly-purchased home in Broken Harbour, they hope to raise their two children, Emma and Jack, in the safe folds of the same love that has kept the two of them together all this time. This hope is destroyed when, one night, Emma and Jack are smothered in their beds, and Pat and Jenny are found stabbed and clinging to each other in a pond of blood on the kitchen floor. Jenny is barely alive and has no memories of what happened that night.
On his first walk through the crime scene, Shockey’s new, young partner, Richie, suggests that the family could have been attacked by a psychopath with no real motive. But this doesn’t fit with Shockey’s experience or his worldview. Even psychopaths have their logic, reasons Shockey, even if we don’t understand it. In Shockey’s experience, there’s hardly a person who’s been murdered who didn’t invite it into their lives one way or another. There is always a why.
Broken Harbour trades off some of the careful character development of French’s first three novels in exchange for more of a crime procedural type of novel. This isn’t a complaint: French does crime procedural very well, and for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing, the descriptions of the details involved in the crime scene, the autopsy, the witness and suspect questioning, etc., are hugely fun reading. But for the first 100 pages, we have little to no sense of Shockey’s background, or where his drive for solving murders comes from. Dina, his sister, provides an element of chaos in his otherwise exceedingly regimented life, but we learn that the real source of Shockey’s need for certainty and order comes from the suicide of his mother. She walked into Broken Harbour and let herself drown while the family was on vacation. The questions this event raises in Shockey’s mind– Why did she do it? What was she thinking? Was there anything I could have done?– are all questions that apply equally to the Spain case. Why would anyone want to murder two happily married, popular, beautiful people, and their two young children? An investigation into their private lives finds that aside from Pat having lost his job recently and money being tight as a result, the Spains were involved in nothing that can explain why they might have been targeted. Though Shockey is not as vibrant a character as Cassie Maddox in French’s excellent The Likeness, and the Spains aren’t as thoughtfully drawn as the dysfunctional Mackeys in Faithful Place, Shockey is someone we can recognize from the real world: a man who doesn’t know how to trust or be close to anyone, and believes that this is in fact the best way to live. It gives him what he believes is control. He believes it makes him a better cop than he would otherwise be.
This control is threatened by the youthful innocence of his new partner, Richie. Richie has a gift Shockey does not: he gets witnesses and suspects to talk. To someone like Shockey, though, who has taken pains to separate himself from people as much as possible, the wonder of Richie’s talent is in its results, and not its origin. He believes that Richie has a knack for making people feel comfortable, and it doesn’t occur to him until much later that this is because Richie actually sees witnesses and suspects as people. Nonetheless, Richie’s talent as a detective and his sympathetic ear awaken yearnings in Shockey to have a real friend, to possibly confide in Richie, and the possibility of Shockey’s for once making a real connection is one way in which the reader can relate to him.
Shockey’s mission to solve the Spain case and maintain his belief that the world follows rules meets with only mixed success, but French’s novels have never come with unambiguously cheery endings. In her books, the protagonist always ends up returning to the physical location of some past painful event, and in doing so re-opening a wound that hasn’t healed. Though for the characters, the return to these locations can be painful, for us readers, it is a pleasure to return to French’s world and find a good story waiting for us, same as last time.