A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
The detectives we meet in Tana French’s novels, those who guzzle watered down coffee after an all-night stake-out, who toss suspects into one of their intentionally-uncomfortable interview rooms, who like to say Jaysus as they snap on their latex gloves, are smart but haunted creatures. They can solve crimes, but they can’t solve themselves. E.M. Forster called “The king died and then the queen died of grief” a plot. In a Tana French novel, it’s more like: “The king died and then the queen became a really good detective until a particular case dredged up her grief/resentment/secrets and mucked up her whole life.”
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is the kind of “and then” you want to read in the summertime.
In some ways, Broken Harbor is the most straightforward book in French’s oeuvre. At its outset, Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy — whom some of you might remember as a minor character in Faithful Place — is assigned a gruesome, tragic case: a husband and his two young children have been found dead in their home in Brianstown, a half-deserted development on the coast of Ireland. The wife is in intensive care, recovering from serious knife wounds. Kennedy needs to nail this case after a previous professional screw-up, and his partner is a working-class rookie named Richie. They both have something to prove, their motivations are clear, and the plot, for the most part, adheres to a juicy police procedural/mystery story. Who killed these victims, and why? Will the wife wake up? Does she know anything? Why are there those holes punched into the walls of their otherwise immaculate house? Is the suspect they’ve nabbed guilty? It’s questions like these that keep a girl up late reading.
That the murders happened where Kennedy used to vacation with his family adds a ripple of tension, a pull of emotional mystery, into the narrative design. What was once a seaside camp called Broken Harbor is now a renamed “luxury” development, gone to seed in the wake of Ireland’s financial crisis. Like French’s other work, there’s a back story in this novel that complicates the present conflict. As the pages accumulate, so does the reader’s understanding of Kennedy’s past. Not one, but two, tragedies emerge: the murders, and what happened to Kennedy and his family when he was a kid. Slowly, the plot takes on another dimension, for there is not only the case to solve, but also a person to understand. Other questions materialize: Is Detective Kennedy able to see this case clearly? Is he too eager to close it? Will his mentally-ill sister ruin him? The novel becomes about a man’s binary ways of understanding the world, of believing the world can be understood, measured, quarantined, and then parceled into evidence. How this plot wraps around the book’s initial, more straightforward one is what the novel is really about. To return to E.M. Forster, it’s the novel’s “of grief.”
French does many things very, very well in Broken Harbor. The writing, for one. Just as any shot of liquor could get me drunk, any well-plotted mystery novel could probably keep me turning its pages. It’s the beauty of Tana French’s prose, however — lines like, “Interesting fact from the front lines: raw grief smells like ripped leaves and splintered branches, a jagged green shriek,” and, “darker than the inside of bone” — that makes me enjoy turning those pages. A Tana French mystery is like a fancy cocktail: sure, the alcohol alone could do the trick, but it’s how the liquor interacts with the homemade ginger beer, or the muddled local strawberries, that make me feel closer to God.
In Broken Harbor, French’s writing is masterful, dare I say Godly: smooth, sharply observed, with at least one beautiful and accurate description on every page. It’s what renders Brianstown, with its half-built houses and deserted streets, an eerie ghost town, one that would easily breed not only unease but violence. It’s also what gets us closer to Kennedy and his particular way of seeing the world. Our hero is the declarative sort; he has particular ideas about how things work, and how to do his job, and he enjoys imparting this wisdom: “I watch myself hardest around the families. Nothing can trip you up like compassion,” he narrates. And: “In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.” French’s first-person narrative is intimate and also calculating: Kennedy’s self-assured negotiation with the world dissolves as the story progresses, and that’s dramatic.
For the most part, the relationship between Kennedy and Richie is another successful aspect of the novel. Theirs is a love story without the sex, a work-place tale that echoes father-son narratives the world over, a story about intimacy and trust between men. For the first half of the book, Richie is a stand-in for the reader — Kennedy shows him how to solve a case, Scorcher-style — which is a clever device on French’s part. Once the book moves away from its straightforward crime-solving, the story of how Kennedy and Richie’s connection grows, strains, and frays is what most interested me.
There are times when the novel falters. Occasionally, the emotional shifts in Kennedy seemed contrived. It sometimes felt as though French pushed her hero into believing theories that I wasn’t sure he’d believe, perhaps all in the name of giving him a strong and dramatic arc. In the latter half of the novel, Kennedy makes decisions that felt a little thick to me: he was too attached to certain arguments regarding the case, and I didn’t buy his inflexibility. In the first two-thirds of the novel, his relationship with Richie is depicted with grace, but the end of the book gave me an uncomfortable deus ex machina feeling. A near-end twist did surprise me, but it felt bullied into the story, as a way to wrap up the mystery. Maybe there was too much plot, and it got in the way of everything else. I was also immediately bored with a few of the minor characters, including a 20-something computer specialist who seemed snatched from any number of Law & Order episodes. Note: a penchant for loud techno music doth not a character make.
Despite its flaws, the end of Broken Harbor left me deeply unsettled. French ends her novel with a mystery beyond the mystery: Why do terrible things happen? It’s a question I’ve been pondering ever since. Just yesterday, for instance, as I walked home from the grocery store, a wind picked up and blew across my street like a portent of terror. I thought of Broken Harbor, of all that can happen beyond our control, and I shivered.
Now, that’s what I call summer reading.