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Review: Broken Harbor
Broken Harbor by Tana French. Viking Adult. 2012. Personal copy. This is my Thanksgiving Holiday Read, a review of something that is not a YA book. (Yes, it’s the day after, but you have the weekend to read it!) Book 4 in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Previous books: In the Woods; The Likeness; and Faithful Place.
The Plot: Patrick Spain is dead, as are his two small children. His wife is in critical condition. They were found in their new house, in a development never finished, one of Ireland’s “Ghost Estates.” Mick Kennedy (nickname Scorcher) is the investigating detective. taking a risk on Richie, the rookie on the team.
Mick takes pride in what he does; and he follows the rules; and he gets the job done. Not many could take a case with dead kids, for instance; Mick does.
The Spains lived in a development called Brianstown. Before the fancy, unfinished, poorly built Brianstown, though, it was called Broken Harbor. Broken Harbor was where Mick’s family spent a week of vacation each summer, back in the day when families where happy with a week in a caravan and the beach and ice cream. Something happened to Mick’s family back then, but Mick isn’t going to talk about that. He’s not going to think about that. He’s going to solve the case, of what happened to the Spains.
The Good: Yes, I skipped the middle two books in this series. It was no problem, really; each book stands alone, loosely tied together by the members of the murder squad, yes, but with shifting main characters. So while I didn’t experience Mick as seen through the eyes of others in the earlier books, it didn’t impact how I read this. I could tell from how Mick treated Richie that Mick could sometimes be a bit of an annoying stick in the mud, particular about things being done the right way and only he, Mick, knowing that way. Of course, now I want to go back and read the two that I skipped!
They mystery is, of course, who killed the Spain family, who left Jenny Spain for dead? Mick is a by-the-book man, who believes that usually people “invite” crime in. There is something, somewhere, that made the crimes happen; it doesn’t come out of the blue; if a family member usually did it, look at the family; and these are what guides his investigation. Richie, younger, questions why Mick isn’t open to more possibilities. The tension between the two, the disagreement on what to look at and what to not look at, creates some of the tension in this novel. Even though this is told by Mick, at times I was sympathetic to Richie’s arguments, or saw the things Mick couldn’t recognize.
The other tension comes from Mick himself. What happened to his own family, years ago, at Broken Harbor, is a secret he slowly reveals to the reader. What is more quickly shown to the reader is Mick’s younger sister, Dina, who is flighty, irrational, mentally unstable, and has only her family to take care of her. Since their other sister has her hands full with her husband and children, it’s up to Mick to caretake Dina while delving into the murders of the Spains.
There are several ghosts in Broken Harbor. The Ghost Estates: the ghost of the broken dreams of posterity and promise, the ghost of success and happiness. It is Mick’s own ghosts, too, of what happened to his family. It may be even more than that. One of the things I loved about In the Woods is that there was a possible fantastical element to it, if the reader wanted to believe in it. Children disappeared, and was it for something a bit unreal, something pagan leftover in the woods? Here, Mick discovers that the house the Spains lived in, like that of their neighbors, was poorly constructed. The Spains tried to hide it with furniture and paint… except for the holes in the walls and baby monitors in odd places and a trap in the attic. What was going on in the Spain house?
Mick grew up in before the success a younger generation knew; the loss of that, perhaps, hits him and his generation a bit less than those who always knew plenty. He and his knew about wearing hand me downs or second hand clothes; for someone like Jenny Spain, though, those things would be a sign of failure. Broken Harbor isn’t just a murder investigation: it is also a look at economic prosperity and it’s loss. It’s a look at what that loss does to a person.
Broken Harbor is also a glimpse at the Ireland before that success, in the story of Mick and his family. Let me tell you: I really liked Mick. When I couldn’t understand his relationship with his sister, Dina, I reminded myself that (while he is roughly my age) his was a culture of “what would the neighbors say” and “we take care of our own.” That, I could understand, and Mick’s and Dina’s tragedy is that neither of them can move beyond that. Still, they take of their own. That’s something, right? Broken Harbor, or broken people, and which people can put themselves together and which people don’t? What do you do when the wolves are at the door? For all that Jenny Spain doesn’t want to buy used clothing, who am I to judge, because neither do I.
Because this book has just the right mix of elements to intrigue me, because I liked Mick, because I felt sorry for the Spains, because the story haunts me, because I want to read the books I missed, because I want to read more about Ireland and the ghost estates. And because I was reminded of Ken Bruen‘s books. (Note to self: need to catch up with Jack Taylor and see how he’s doing.) This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.
About Elizabeth Burns
Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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