Book Review: Broken Harbour by Tana French

Broken Harbour¸ the latest psychological thriller by Irish novelist Tana French is as pitch-perfect as her other three books (Into the Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place) and may very well be her most subtle and intense work.

As anyone who’s read her other novels knows, Tana French paradoxically makes Ireland both familiar and exotic.  Her descriptive powers give you the flavour and texture of Ireland, provide you with the scent of the air and the sound of the wind and make you feel as if you too share a history with the locations.  You feel like you know the landscape as intimately as you know your own hometown whether you’ve been to Ireland or not. But, Ireland is also a lovingly described exotic location, with a complex history and unique terms and sensibilities.  She captures the milieu of Ireland.  As well, her subtle integration of the boom and bust economic reality of Ireland into the plot and setting of her novels gives her narratives a layer of credibility and authenticity that is often missing in less complex novels.

Broken Harbour begins with Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy catching the Spain murder case and, to no surprise to readers familiar with Scorcher as the over-confident, slightly unimaginative, by-the-book detective who investigated the murders in Faithful Place, pronouncing himself the best detective for this horrific crime.  Taking a bit player from a previous novel and making him or her the narrator of the next novel is a Tana French hallmark, and here she masterfully connects Broken Harbour’s Kennedy to the Scorcher described in Faithful Place.

The true beauty of Broken Harbour is the way French integrates Kennedy’s own past into the narrative.  His relationship with his sisters, his own memories of Broken Harbour before it became the Brianstown housing estate where he investigates the murder of the Spain family, and the veiled hints to the case that was the centre of Faithful Place, all combine into a nuanced and carefully constructed narration.  French’s narrators are never completely reliable because they, like actual people, are influenced by their own prejudices and past experience; however, it’s only as the novel progresses that you realize just how much Kennedy’s own past and family influence how he investigates these murders.

Tana French is a master of intricate relationships.  The other, minor characters in Broken Harbour are well drawn and complex and their relationships with Kennedy and each other are believable and complicated.  Richie, as Kennedy’s new, green partner, is fascinating as a naturally intuitive rookie detective and all of the players in the murder from the victims to the suspects are multifaceted and interesting.  When the murderer is finally revealed, you can see the steps French used to get there, but at no point was it glaringly obvious.

The only flaw I can find with Broken Harbour has to do with Richie and Kennedy’s ultimate fate within the Murder Squad.  I felt Richie’s future was especially difficult to stomach, but his actions that lead up to that eventual fate were interesting and the results were not, even if unsatisfactory for a reader who felt close to this character, overly harsh.

Broken Harbour is a match for French’s other novels and I think, after rereading them all, could be her best work.  The relationships and characters are multilayered and extremely authentic.  The mystery at the heart of the novel isn’t easily solved and French’s Ireland provides a rich landscape for everything to play out.

Broken Harbour will be available at Books & Co in June 2012.

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