August 02, 2012


Broken Harbor. By Tana French. Viking. $27.95.

      As a mystery writer, Tana French stands out in several ways, and it is difficult to pinpoint just which one makes her books so good.  It could be her training in how to reach an audience: she acts professionally in both theater and film.  Or it could be the way she creates a world within which her characters exist, then links her books within that world – without requiring readers of one book to have read the others.  This means that Broken Harbor, French’s fourth novel, stars and is narrated by Detective Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, who first appeared in French’s third book, Faithful Place, where he was a distinctly unpleasant character and the nemesis of that book’s protagonist, Frank Mackey.  Or it could be that French consistently delves into the motivations of her characters – what makes them who they are – and then deftly uses the characters’ personalities to bring her novels to satisfying conclusions.

      It is this last characteristic that French handles particularly well in Broken Harbor.  The title refers to a village that Detective Kennedy knows well from childhood – and of course the word “broken” is no accident, since it will turn out to apply not only to the location but also to Kennedy himself, and to others in this book as well.  The area has been rechristened Brianstown, a would-be-upscale name referring to a housing development that, because of the economic collapse in Ireland, is only partly finished and looks like a ghost town before its time.  And there are ghosts in it: those of Kennedy’s own past, as well as any that may have been produced by the gruesome triple murder of a father and two young children that Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie Curran, are assigned to investigate.

      French gives Kennedy a distinctive and thoroughly believable voice.  For readers who remember Mackey’s view of Kennedy as a systematic, by-the-book dullard, Kennedy’s self-assessment near the start of Broken Harbor will have extra resonance: “Probably he was thinking what a boring bollix I was. Plenty of people think the same thing.  All of them are teenagers, mentally if not physically.  Only teenagers think boring is bad.  Adults, grown men and women who’ve been around the block a few times, know that boring is a gift straight from God. Life has more than enough excitement up its sleeve, ready to hit you with as soon as you’re not looking, without you adding to the drama.”  Later, Kennedy makes it clear that he has taken his life experience and turned it into a technique: “Plenty of people take me for a pompous git way too fond of the sound of his own voice, which is absolutely fine with me. Go ahead and dismiss me; go right ahead and drop your guard.”  But it is not necessary to have read Faithful Place – or French’s first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness – to figure out that these little speeches show that Kennedy has indeed “been around the block a few times” and is about to go around it again, in unexpected ways, during his latest case.  Nor are Kennedy’s initial remarks on boredom and drama the first hint of how things are going to go in Broken Harbor, because by the time he makes them, Kennedy has already texted his older sister, Geri, about helping to “look out for” their “baby” sister, Dina, who is obviously no child – there is something going on there.

      And of course there is not just something going on – there are some things going on.  The murder investigation itself is skillfully handled in police-procedural mode, with the usual false trails – it’s pretty obvious that a voyeur/stalker, clearly a prime suspect, will not be the killer (this is one of the few ho-hum elements of French’s books: a very standard use of red herrings and false suspicions).  Kennedy, whose braggadocio and misplaced self-confidence are clear from the book’s first page, could very easily become as unattractive a character as Mackey thought him to be in Faithful Place.  But French never lets that happen.  She insists on making her narrator more sympathetic and deeper as the story progresses and the mystery, inevitably, deepens.  True, Kennedy remains a blunt and rather dull person – an occasional deviation from his straightforward narrative reads not like a previously unknown facet of his personality but like an authorial misstep: “rare as a sweet-voiced hidden bird that no one ever sees alive,” or “like a cello string when a tuning fork strikes the perfect tone to call it awake.” But bit by bit, elements of Kennedy’s past – his mother’s suicide, his sister Dina’s mental instability, his own traumatic memories of Broken Harbor – come out as the story builds, and they thoroughly humanize him even if they never make him fully likable.  More importantly – and more to the point of what makes French’s novels so good – it is Kennedy’s flawed personality, his difficult past, even his deep-seated prejudices, that lead to his approaching the murder investigation in the particular way he does, and that ultimately make it possible for him to figure out what happened.  In a wonderful bit of irony of which French is quite aware but Kennedy cannot be, this always systematic detective, thinking that he is probing a murder using correct and standard procedures, is actually moving toward the solution through a combination of intuitive leaps and personal predilections whose use he would certainly condemn if he saw them employed by anyone else.

      And this is a large part of what makes French such a standout.  The concept of “character comedy” is well known, and that of “character tragedy” dates back to the ancient Greeks, if not earlier.  What French does is produce “character mysteries” – and interlinked ones, yet.  Broken Harbor is a virtuoso performance from start to finish, with every sign that there are plenty of other splendid psychological thrillers masquerading as murder mysteries where this one came from.

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