This is the fourth of Tana French’s loosely-linked mysteries that I’ve read, and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed each of them more than the last. Broken Harbor is no exception. In it, French explores love, mental illness, the depths of the financial recession, and the nature of true partnership. Perhaps most of all, she digs her nails into the myth that a positive mental attitude is all it takes to drag you out of a bad situation, and I’ve got to love her for that.
Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (a Murder Squad cop who had the wrong end of the stick in Faithful Place) is our narrator in this novel. He’s working his way back up the ladder after that mistake, so when a big murder case crosses his desk, he’s eager to take it, solve it, and make sure everyone knows who’s boss again. This time, it’s a bad one: the entire Spain family, father, mother, and two small children, have died in what looks like a multiple stabbing — and the murder took place in Broken Harbor, a newly-developed estate where Kennedy used to take vacations when he was a kid. The combination of memories and new, bloody trauma is one that French has explored before in her mysteries, and it’s a potent one.
But it’s far more complicated than that. To begin with, the mother somehow survives her wounds. And it turns out that the children weren’t stabbed; there’s not a drop of blood in their rooms — why? And the estate — such a dream on the surface — is falling apart; the builders have thrown together hundreds of hollow shells on shaky foundations and have scarpered. The homes are worthless, the estate silent and empty. Each time Kennedy and his rookie partner Richie come up with a suspect, they worry it’s the wrong one. Nothing about this case fits.
French does a wonderful job of evoking an eerie situation in this intricately-plotted novel, and the dead family is only part of it. When the detectives walk in to the crime scene, their first impression is of a house where people were really trying to make it work, despite the father’s unemployment: nice furniture, everything clean, careful decorations, framed pictures in crayon. But there are big, ugly holes in the walls and video monitors pointed at a hatch in the attic, and that’s even before you get to the blood spatter. This house looked good from the outside, but there was something very, very wrong on the inside. The question is, did the evil come in through the door, or was it already living there?
There’s a belief floating around in Western culture that if you or others are negative about your situation, things will only get worse, and (as a corollary) if you’re bright and cheerful and believe things will get better, things will certainly improve. Be a fighter! Don’t let the turkeys get you down! Believe in your dreams and the rest will follow! At its most harmless, this is illogical; at its worst, this leads to harmful nonsense like the long-lasting stigma against mental illness and other invisible disabilities. (Just cheer up! Depend on yourself! You can do it!) In Broken Harbor, Tana French creates a very effective metaphor for the kind of damage this clinging to a “positive mental attitude” can do. The best thing about the metaphor is that it’s ambiguous. Is the creature real, or not? In the end, it doesn’t matter; the effects are real enough.
One of the most delicately-written parts of the book is that our narrator suffers from the same ailment: a desire to control all his circumstances and cling to a positive mental narrative. We know why: owing to his family history (which is bleeding into his present in some interesting and well-done ways), he never wants to lose control again, never wants to be to blame for anything bad happening. He wants everything explainable, nothing to be “just because,” nothing to make him depend on anyone or ask for help. This, of course, makes the betrayal all the more wrenching when it comes — an inevitable betrayal, because who can live up to the standard of total control? French does damaged heroes really well, and Kennedy is a terrific voice to listen to.
This book was French’s best yet — wistful and chilling and suspenseful — which is saying a great deal because I have liked all of her books so far. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.