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Mystery Review: Broken Harbor, Tana French (2012)

Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case. - Tana French, Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor ... this book is very good.

And very, very, very dark.

The darkest of darks.

Pitch black, no moon, maybe, maybe a shimmer of one faint star behind a thick layer of clouds in darkest before the dawn hour dark.

If you're having a rough week or money troubles or family troubles or romance troubles or house troubles ... well, I'm not sure if reading this will make you feel better or worse, but go into this one forewarned that it is the opposite of a barrel of laughs and sunshine.

Broken Harbor picks up the story of Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, a few years after he was last seen (unusually) bungling the case of Rosie Daley's death in Faithful Place. Ireland is now firmly in the midst of the 2007-2008 recession. Property values have plummeted, jobs have been lost, and Kennedy is called to a murder scene. Two children have been smothered, their father has been stabbed to death, and their mother has been rushed to the hospital with stab wounds and is in critical condition. To add to the intrigue, their house also has mysterious holes punched randomly in the walls, and far too many baby monitors pointed at the holes.

For a French book, this book follows a fairly conventional, straightforward plot. Kennedy and his partner, the still wet behind the ears Richie Curran, quickly hunt down the main suspects in the case - which include the dead father, whose wounds could have been self-inflicted - and are left to try to work out which of the small number of people could have done such a horrific crime. There are some subplots around Scorcher dealing with his sister, Dina, who has an undefined mental illness, and memories of his mother, who killed herself by walking into the sea at Broken Harbor when he was a teenager, but French keeps the primary focus on the investigation.

This investigation itself - narrowly focused on so few suspects - is more into how the Spain family fell apart, as symbolized by the crumbling house. Kennedy and Curran spend much of the book working backwards to understand how on earth something like this could have happened to such a perfect looking family.

It seems impossible at first. The family in question - Pat and Jenny Spain - had done everything they were supposed to do. They were teenage sweethearts who married young, had two lovely children, and bought a house (shoddily built even when new, purchased at the height of the property boom).

But then everything starts to come crashing down on their heads when Pat loses his job and the precious money starts to run out. Their seemingly unshakeable foothold in the Irish bourgeoisie starts to become tenuous. Pat starts hearing animals in the walls of the house, Jenny pulls one of the children out of preschool, and they stop seeing friends and family ... and then three of them end up dead.

This book is grappling with a question beyond who killed the Spains, however. French is trying to unpack what happens to people who have done everything "right" when everything starts to go wrong? Who do you choose to be then? And is anyone really to blame for a tragic unraveling of lives when all the rules have been followed? As Scocher himself realizes towards the end of the book: "...I was what I had given all my adult life to becoming: a murder detective, the finest on the squad, the one who got the solves and got them on the straight and narrow. By the time I left, I was something else." (Or, as Roseanne Cash says: "I cannot be who I was then / In a way, I never was.")

Summary: 4.25 stars and the obligatory Tey/French. Also the first French where I didn't figure out whodunit!

Next week, I head over to St. Kilda's with my one of my favorite Murder Squad members, Detective Stephen Moran in French's The Secret Place. (Preview: they're still mystery novels, with murder and mayhem, but none of the French books I have left to review are going to pack quite as much a punch in the gut as Broken Harbor.)

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