Unsettled and Unsolved: Tana French’s Broken Harbor

August 9, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 10 4 min read

coverThe 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.

coverIn 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.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I have read the book, and it’s been the first of French that I will ever read – wasted money, honestly, and I can’t agree with the comment about her writing: do detectives of Irish police actually speak like NY-Law-and-order cops? Really? I started noticing the incongruent language at the very beginning of the story, and page by page it was the only thing I could think of, counting how many times Kennedy or any of his assistants/sidekicks would use some clichés, some trite expression that even Law and Order cops don’t use anymore. It made some difficult reading, and when I passed the book to a couple of colleagues and they started reading it, it was the same comment – and they then decided not to bother with reading the rest.
    Maybe she should have set it somewhere in America, where the language might have been more appropriate for the setting – or show me an Irish policeman speaking like they did in her book, and I’ll apologise.

  2. This plot sounds just too close to French’s In the Woods for me to take it up. I enjoyed that book and was happy to keep reading it until its protagonist Adam/Rob mucks up his life. It needn’t have been mucked up, and the error could have easily been mended by either or both parties if the characters were as she had written them up to that point (the very antithesis of a deus ex machina, I suppose).

    Also, please correct the irritating typo in the next to last sentence of the review.

  3. Anne, I think you meant the third to last sentence…? I had “portend” instead of “portent.” Just fixed–damn those homonyms!

  4. I’m hoping to start Broken Harbor this weekend, as Tana French’s first three books just blew me away (Faithful Place was the least of the three, I think, but still worth reading). Her ability to create vivid characters and place them in these incredibly intense and unsettling situations is unmatched. Can’t wait!

  5. I just finished Broken Harbor this morning. I wonder if Edan Lepucki or anyone else made any “The Exorcist” connections to this story? I would love to ask French, herself, but doubt that’s possible. The demonic possession in The Exorcist starts with scratching, scrabbling in the attic, ends with little Regan possessed by the demon. In Broken Harbor the Spains’ attic is occupied by some sort of “animal” making scratching noises. The scratching slowly drives Pat the Lad nuts and, apparently, Jenny as well. As far as I could tell the reality of this animal is never established, or, if the scratching is an attempt by someone in the plot to drive the Spains nuts we never learn who that person is. I admit to having skimmed some of the rather tedious end of the book looking for the solution to this animal in the attic mystery — was it a literal animal or was the Spains’ attic occupied by some form of Pazuzu, a “portent” of the murder to come, of the unraveling of not only Pat’s sanity but Jenny’s even more? French, as far as I could tell, never even hints at a solution to this animal in the attic dilemma. I found this disappointing and more than a bit cowardly on her part. Otherwise, yes, what starts off as a police procedural quickly moves into really harrowing territory about the possession of very normal people by a force of some sort capable of causing them to kill. To leave this issue so completely unresolved really disappointed me.

  6. Well, I’m enthusiastic – and not for the same reasons the o.p. loved it – i.e., yes, Ms. French is a fine writer, but heck, if a book in this genre doesn’t hook you with its story, plot, characters, the writing is akin to good handwriting … in the old days.

    (Nice, but never nice enough!)

    Emphasis on characters! Ms. French – yes, I heard her being interviewed, and describing your method is NO SUBSTITUTE for delivering on the printed – or pixealated page. Still, the gimmick of taking different characters from the same squad room is both novel – no, I’m not a mystery scholar, so if 1-3 people have done it before, spare me! – and worthwhile.

    Now, to deal with the “drek” above my post – not that I’m d-free, I know! … To the guy who skimmed the last 300 pages, “Can’t wait to hear your restaurant review when you were able to snag a spoonful of dessert!” You didn’t even skim with anything like care or expertise!

    Other folks – where DO you draw your comparisons with Law & Order from? I loved the show before it jumped the shark, got past it 5 years or so ago, when Mr. Wolff probably stopped caring and just kept counting, but except for this not being 1930 or whatever “classic mysteries” used to feature, this REALLY bears no resemblance. Oh wait, you say “ripped from the headlines” … of the last 5 years or so. Hmmm, no it’s not sci-fi, so the global melt-down DOES figure in the mix.

    Rosemary’s Baby? PLEASE – if there’s a reader who, like me, would rather a mystery weighed in c. 225 rather than 400 … and is looking for an excuse to pass this one up. There’s lots of stuff that could have been cut – if you’ve gotten this far, you know that the protagonist has his share of childhood-related demons – THOSE should have gotten trimmed, excess fat that they are – BUT the “could it be?” element is strictly psychological, not the least bit “mystical.”

    And the computer stuff is right as rain, whether it grabs you or not.

    When the woman (Ms. French) is acknowledged as having displaced PD James, the morons who think it’s cool to carp (you can read their lame efforts if you haven’t already here, on Amazon, etc.) will have the – to me – delicious choice of S-ing TFU or continuing to nitpick.

    Yes, that’s how good she is!

  7. I can’t believe 1. there are people who think all those hugely gratingly trite ideas about themselves – say them over and over – dig shallowly-superficially over and over – go so nowhere in their heads and certainly no good cop-crime mystery work; 2. that there are people who think this is good reading; 3. that anyone who writes so miserably poorly is read. Etc.
    of course I read and read – and skipped huge amounts – the ‘gorgeous’ descriptions are only out of place in this kind of subject – overdone, here. Events don’t follow reasonably on each other. I kept waiting to see what any reader was talking about, saying anything good about this book.
    I’m relieved to find this site with folks’ comments that approach mine.

  8. Nope, that “irritating typo” is in the next-to-last sentence, though it’s not really a typo.

    Not unless when you wrote “walking home from the grocery store, a wind picked up and blew across my street like a portent of terror”, you intended to say that this wind was walking.


    — jules

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