Tana French’s “Broken Harbor”: Murder & Madness During Economic Downturn

"Book in Garden" photo by Vincent Fazzi

Photo by Vincent Fazzi, 2014.

Book Review: “Broken Harbor” by Tana French, published by Penguin Books, 2012

Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the Dublin detective with the best solve rate in Tana French’s books, is assigned a vicious case in her latest thriller. Patrick Spain and his two young children have been murdered in their home. His wife, Jenny, is barely alive.

Kennedy goes to the crime scene in Brianstown, an upscale but remote subdivision by the sea. He knows the place as Broken Harbor, the source of bad memories for him. His family used to spend summers in this town, which acquired a new name when it was developed at the height of Ireland’s economic boom.

Broken Harbor attracted upwardly mobile families like the Spains. When the economy tanked, the developers left the subdivision unfinished. At the same time, Patrick Spain lost his job, causing a reversal of fortune overnight for his family.

Seen from the eyes of Kennedy, Broken Harbor looks like this: “At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards Little Gems Children Childcare and Diamond Cut Leisure Center. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were no gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.”

Pieces of Puzzle

The detective is confounded by what he sees. The Spains’ home is tastefully decorated, but riddled with holes in the wall. Multiple baby monitors are scattered throughout the house. There is an animal trap in the attic and a surveillance camera pointed at the hatch for the attic. The contents of Patrick’s computer have been erased. Who killed the Spains? Why was Jenny spared?

These are the pieces of the puzzle that Kennedy must put together. Slowly the picture of the Spains’ shattered dreams and Pat’s mental instability emerge. Did he snap and kill his family and himself? How did Jenny survive?

The police discover that an old friend, who was once in love with Jenny, has been stalking the family. Also, there may or may not be a feral animal in the attic.

While Kennedy tries to solve the mystery, he has to contend with his sister, the volatile Dina, who suffers from a mental illness. His return to Broken Harbor has also brought back bitter memories of a tragic summer.

“Broken Harbor” succeeds in capturing the spirit of the current global economic downturn, which has turned many lives upside down. But in terms of the thrill of unraveling a mystery, it’s less effective. About halfway through this 450-page book, I guessed the murderer. Perhaps this book is just too long for a mystery that’s not as multilayered as French’s other works.

Let me say outright that I love Tana French. Like her previous books, “Broken Harbor” is deeply psychological and more than just a procedural. Mick Kennedy is a well-drawn character. But the mystery surrounding the Spains was too thin to merit 450 pages. In the end, this novel falls short of what I expected. Of Tana French’s four books, the hauntingly memorable “In the Woods” (2007) remains my favorite.

Photo by Vincent Fazzi, 2014.

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