A few months ago on this blog, when I wrote about Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel, I mentioned that I don’t ordinarily read books out of order. It’s not my usual modus operandi, but sometimes, I make an exception, as I did for The Fallen Angel. This week, I made another, for Broken Harbor by Tana French, the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad series. My only defense is that sometimes a book sounds so compelling, so intriguing, that I just can’t help diving right in, regardless of possible spoilers or the potential failure to fully appreciate the story in the proper context.
Was it worth it? In this case, absolutely.
The novel opens with a gruesome crime in an semi-abandoned luxury development outside of Dublin, with Detective Mick Kennedy (accompanied by a rookie partner) dispatched to investigate it. Jenny Spain lies in intensive care, the victim of the same brutal attack that left her husband Pat and their two young children dead. The Spains’ home (the scene of the crime) is puzzling, providing conflicting information about its inhabitants, and raising more questions than answers. The house is beautiful, pristine, and obviously well-loved – except for the gaping holes in its walls. An unusual number of high-end baby monitors aim their cameras at these openings, watching for … what? These peculiarities, combined with other evidence, indicate that the Spains were afraid of something or someone, but was that fear the origin of this assault? And did this perceived threat come from inside or outside their home?
The crime is made all the more horrific by its location, which has unsettling associations for Mick. Years ago, this half-built neighborhood was known as of Broken Harbor, the seaside village where his family went for their annual two week vacation. It’s also the site of their family tragedy, one that continues to haunt the detective, shaping his life even now. His younger sister Dina was even more damaged by this event, and Mick’s unexpected return to their shared past pushes her perilously close to the edge of her already precarious sanity.
The novel unfolds with deliberate slowness after the gut-wrenching discovery of the crime, gradually peeling back the layers of the past for both the victims and Mick. Of sheer necessity, the investigation must be deeply invasive, prying into every aspect of the Spains’ lives, relevant or otherwise. The plot is tightly woven, with dark twists and turns as the detectives attempt to fit all the evidence into a shape that makes sense, but then are forced to rearrange the puzzle as new pieces emerge. It is just as much a psychological exploration as murder mystery, even with murder at the heart of the story. The why is just as much, if not more important, than the who – the latter almost serving as a tool in the service of unearthing the former.
Mick Kennedy himself is a compelling narrator, an upstanding if flawed man who is all too aware of his own failings and frailties. He takes his job as an officer of the law seriously, seeking justice to the best of his ability, and consequently faced with terrible choices. Being deeply damaged, he erects emotional walls between himself and the rest of the world, yet remains remarkably empathetic and insightful. He cares deeply for others, far more than he would have even the reader know, hiding behind a facade of (admittedly justified) arrogance and pragmatism. But then again, every other character here is equally layered and complex, unspeakably, undeniably human. We sympathize with their mistakes, understanding their decisions even as we see the fallout of the poor ones.
Broken Harbor makes you ache, for all the loneliness and unhappiness that permeates even the most ordinary of lives. So much emptiness, so many lives in shambles, so many clinging desperately to normality and safety, when both are just illusions. Sometimes there are no satisfactory answers, even when you discover the why behind a tragedy. Even after the culprit is found, nothing will ever be the same again for those involved, investigator and victim alike. Sometimes the only thing left to do at the end of the day, as Mick does, is curl up with your loved ones and wait for the dawn.