In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.
I remember this country back when I was growing up…Sometime since then, we start turning feral. Wild got into the air and its spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train…Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.
The final step into feral is murder.
It could be the setup for a riddle. There are four bodies in a well-maintained (but for the holes in the wall) house with in a cheaply-built and never-completed residential subdivision. The dead children in their beds have the look of angelic peace, while the husband and wife lie next to each other in a pool of blood, both covered in cuts from an absent knife. The doors show no sign of forced entry. How did they die?
Enter the Dublin Murder Squad. Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy’s reputation for competence comes at a cost: he catches the toughest cases and the most trainees. Right now he has both. With the rookie Richie Curran in tow, Kennedy begins an investigation that takes him to the scene of the crime in Broken Harbor, a town outside Dublin now called Brianstown that holds deeply-buried secrets for the Kennedy family.
The case at first seems open-and-shut; dad did it. Despite his brash reputation, Scorcher plays the odds and this is what the odds say, particularly in the wake of an economic collapse. But the clues don’t quite add up. They can’t find the knife; not all of the wounds could have been self-inflicted; neighbors say the Spains recently started acting strangely, but friends say they were the perfect family; the computer’s history and hard drive have been wiped; searchers find a roost where it seems a voyeur watched the family. Detectives Kennedy and Curran start unraveling the mystery of what causes a perfect, loving family to snap.
Their inquiry receives a big break when Jenny Spain wakes up, but her answers only lead to more questions.
Broken Harbor is narrated in first person from Mike Kennedy’s point of view. This device gives insight into his personality—that he likes to keep control, that he follows the rules, that he is competent in a way that rubs coworkers the wrong way—and provides grounds for plot twists when there are developments in the case he cannot control. Moreover, it lends weight to the blending of the two plot arcs playing out simultaneously, the case and the events of his youth in Broken Harbor that intrude upon the the narrative when his younger sister Dina, a young woman with a mental illness, makes demands on his time.
Not a lot happens in Broken Harbor, and yet it is a meaty book, its brevity of plot more than compensated for by the psychological depth of characterization. Kennedy in particular chews scenery as he works the case, interrogates witnesses, and reflects on his limits in the case. At the same time, the more that the layers are pulled back from the picture perfect family of the Spains, the more superficial that image becomes. They become a family stuck in the past and flailing against the impossibility of a future during the economic collapse of 2007.
I love a good detective story, and Broken Harbor transcends the limits of that particular genre. French revels in the little details, such as making it abundantly clear that there are legitimately beefs people have with Scorcher even while the reader is embedded in his point of view and therefore predisposed to side with him. I didn’t get the same sense of place that I often go to mystery novels for, but French more than compensates with a gripping psychological drama that, if anything, is too unrelenting for all of the parties involved.
Next up, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven on the strength of a Max Temkin’s recommendation on a recent podcast. It is a delicately interwoven tale about the fallout from a cataclysmic pandemic that hasn’t grabbed me the way I hoped.