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Friday, July 11, 2014

Tana French’s latest psychological mystery enthralls and disturbs

By JANET MASLIN
New York Times News Service

“Broken Harbor” by Tana French (Viking, 450 pages, $27.95)

What a pretty picture: an Irish seaside community of 250 new houses built for lucky, happy families. In the evenings the aroma of home-cooked dinners fills the air. Commuters return from work. Gleaming cars fill driveways. Children play in the glow of streetlights. Husbands and wives talk in privacy, because these houses are well built. How could neighbors overhear them through such solid walls?

This community, called Brianstown, is at the heart of Tana French’s devious, deeply felt psychological chiller “Broken Harbor.” A picture is all that it is. Brianstown is actually a half-built ghost town that bears scant resemblance to its idealized version in sales brochures — a grim monument to an Irish housing boom gone bust. Everything about it is dishonest, even the name. The place was called Broken Harbor before somebody decided Brianstown sounded better.

According to Scorcher Kennedy, the novel’s hard-charging main character, “Broken” is derived from “breacadh,” the Gaelic word for dawn. But we know what it really means. In three earlier books (“In the Woods,” “The Likeness” and the best of the bunch, “Faithful Place”) French created haunting, damaged characters who have been hurt by some cataclysm. So it is here too.

The author uses the nifty trick of extracting a secondary character from each book to narrate the one that follows. Scorcher appeared in “Faithful Place” as a colleague of its main character, a fellow Dublin detective named Frank Mackey. “He wore his swagger as part of his El Snazzo suit,” French wrote of Scorcher then. But his bravado is put to the test by the events “Broken Harbor” has in store.

“Feast your eyes, old son,” Scorcher says, blasting his way into the investigation of a very odd and vicious crime. In the middle of the night in Brianstown somebody attacked Jenny and Pat Spain and their two young children. Father and children are dead; Jenny is in no shape to talk to investigators. Scorcher sifts through the details of this calamity while ostensibly teaching his smart young partner, Richie Curran, the tricks of their trade.

This may sound like a routine police procedural. But like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” this summer’s other dagger-sharp display of mind games, “Broken Harbor” is something more. It’s true that French takes readers to all the familiar way stations of a murder investigation: the forensics, the autopsies, the serial interrogations and so on. But she has urgent points to make about the social and economic underpinnings of the Spain family murders. And she has irresistibly sly ways of toying with readers’ expectations.

Take the Spain house’s decor: The place is impeccable except that its walls are full of holes. Clean, dustless holes, not newly punched ones. This detail gets mentioned at the beginning of the book. It occasionally leaps out as something crazy. But “Broken Harbor” manages to gaze past the holes many times, almost casually, before it fully explains what they mean.

Then there is Scorcher’s family connection to Broken Harbor. This was the seaside resort at which he, his parents and his siblings spent two weeks every year. It is the place where his mother committed suicide. This makes the Spains’ nightmare that much more resonant for him. News that Scorcher is investigating this crime coaxes his crazy sister Dina out of whatever hole she has been hiding in and into the fray.

French’s books all give the same first impression. They start slowly and seem to need tighter editing. But as in “Faithful Place,” she patiently lays her groundwork, then moves into full page-turner mode. It takes a while for Scorcher and Richie to nail their possible culprit. Even then this person’s arrival in the story raises many more questions than it answers.

And those holes gets more puzzling with each new twist. The Spains, an otherwise picture-perfect family, were plagued by some kind of intruder, real or imagined. A creature, two-legged or four-, seemed to have invaded their happy home. And Jenny Spain favored expensive clothes even after Pat lost his job, and money became scarce. Perhaps she wanted a mink. But not the kind she feared was living in the walls.

That French is also an actress surely accounts for her skill with minor characters. They include a caustic computer guy who eventually finds the message board where Pat asked questions about catching squirrels. The message board rambles, and you wonder why you are reading through it, until you don’t. French lets Pat’s online voice begin blandly, then turn devastating.

But this is primarily Scorcher’s book. And Scorcher (who brings to mind Benjamin Black’s Quirke, another battle-scarred yet soulful Irish crime solver) is both its narrator and conscience. He truly believes that he keeps the basic, feral side of human nature at bay. About the bad gamble that the Spains made on real estate, Scorcher says, “It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror.”

He will experience this firsthand before “Broken Harbor” is over.

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