Broken Harbor

A Novel
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From Tana French, author of the forthcoming novel The Searcher, a New York Times bestselling novel that “proves anew that [Tana French] is one of the most talented crime writers alive” (The Washington Post). 

“Required reading for anyone who appreciates tough, unflinching intelligence and ingenious plotting.” —The New York Times

Mick “Scorcherˮ Kennedy is the star of the Dublin Murder Squad. He plays by the books and plays hard, and thatʼs how the biggest case of the year ends up in his hands. 

On one of the half-abandoned “luxuryˮ developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children have been murdered. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care. At first, Scorcher thinks itʼs going to be an easy solve, but too many small things canʼt be explained: the half-dozen baby monitors pointed at holes smashed in the Spainsʼ walls, the files erased from the familyʼs computer, the story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder slipping past the houseʼs locks. And this neighborhood—once called Broken Harbor—holds memories for Scorcher and his troubled sister, Dina: childhood memories that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control. 

Praise

“I’ve been enthusiastically telling everyone who will listen to read Tana French. She is, without a doubt, my favorite new mystery writer. Her novels are poignant, compelling, beautifully written, and wonderfully atmospheric. Just start reading the first page. You’ll see what I mean.”
Harlan Coben, New York Times bestselling author

Broken Harbor proves anew that [Tana French] is one of the most talented crime writers alive.”
The Washington Post

“Ms. French has come to be regarded as one of the most distinct and exciting new voices in crime writing. She constructs her plots in a dreamlike, meandering fashion that seems at odds with genre's fixed narrative conventions...Ms. French undercuts expectations at every turn. The victims begin to look less like victims; the case starts to unravel and the lead detective makes compromises that could ruin him.”
--The Wall Street Journal

“Ms. French creates haunting, damaged characters who have been hit hard by some cataclysm...This may sound like a routine police procedural. But like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, this summer’s other dagger-sharp display of mind games, Broken Harbor is something more... she has irresistibly sly ways of toying with readers’ expectations”
--Janet Maslin, The New York Times
 
“So much of the pleasure inherent in reading these novels is in trying to figure out where things are going and being constantly surprised, not to mention thoroughly spooked. I predict Broken Harbor will be on more than one Best of 2012 list—it’s definitely at the top of mine.”
--Associated Press

“a tour de force.”
--Laura Miller, Salon.com

 
“In most crime novels, cood cops and decent people court tragedy by disobeying the rules of society. But the stories French tells reflect our own savage times: the real trouble starts when you play fair and do exactly as you’re told.”
--Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
 
“French's psychologically rich novels are so much more satisfying than your standard issue police procedural...French brilliantly evokes the isolation of a Gothic landscape out of the Brontes and transposes it to a luxury suburban development gone bust. The cause, of course, is Ireland's economic free fall — the Celtic Tiger turned needy cub — and, like all superior detective fiction, French's novels are as much social criticism as they are whodunit.”
Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
 
“French ...[is] drawn not just to the who but also to the why — those bigger mysteries about the human weaknesses that drive somebody to such inhuman brutality. What really gives Broken Harbor its nerve-rattling force is her exploration of events leading up to the murders, rendered just as vividly as the detectives’ scramble to solve them.”
--Entertainment Weekly (A- rating)
 
“These four novels have instated Ms. French as one of crime fiction’s reigning grand dames — a Celtic tigress... It’s not the fashion in literary fiction these days to address such things as the psychological devastation that a fallout of the middle class can wreak on those who have never known anything else, and Ms. French does it with aplomb — and a headless sparrow and dozens of infrared baby monitors.”
--The Washington Times
 
Broken Harbour is a novel, of course, but it's also a headline...it's good to see contemporary literature engaging a crisis that has had such an impact on the lives of so many. This is, in fact, what good literature does. It makes us look at our world and perhaps forces us to see what we have chosen to ignore.”
--Los Angeles Times
 

Excerpt

Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case. You’d be amazed how many of the lads would have run a mile, given the choice—and I had a choice, at least at the start. A couple of them said it to my face: Sooner you than me, man. It didn’t bother me, not for a second. All I felt was sorry for them.
 
Some of them aren’t wild about the high-profile gigs, the high-stakes ones—too much media crap, they say, and too much fallout if you don’t get a solve. I don’t do that kind of negativity. If you put your energy into thinking about how much the fall would hurt, you’re already halfway down. I focus on the positive, and there’s plenty of positive there: you can pretend you’re above this stuff, but everyone knows the big cases are the ones that bring the big promotions. Give me the headline-grabbers and you can keep your drug-dealer stabbings. If you can’t take the heat, stay in uniform.
 
Some of the lads can’t handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can’t cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I’ve handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets done. Someone has to do it. If that’s me, then at least it’s getting done right.
 
Because let’s get another thing clear, while we’re at it: I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place. This year I’m down to second, but the top guy got a run of slam dunks, domestics where the suspect practically slapped the cuffs on his own wrists and served himself up on a plate with applesauce. I pulled the tough ones, the nobody-seen-nothing junkie-on-junkie drudgery, and I still scored. If our superintendent had had one doubt, one single doubt, he could have pulled me off the case any time he wanted. He never did.
 
Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.
 
* * *
 
The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next in the rota, or, if he’s out, to whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendent O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.
 
I flipped my jacket off the back of my chair and pulled it on. My heartbeat had picked up. It had been a long time, too long, since one of these had come my way. “Don’t go anywhere,” I said to Richie, my partner.
 
“Oooo,” Quigley called from his desk, mock horrified, shaking a pudgy hand. “Is Scorcher in the shit again? I never thought we’d see the day.”
 
“Feast your eyes, old son.” I made sure my tie was straight. Quigley was being a little bitch because he was next up in the rota. If he hadn’t been a waste of space, O’Kelly might have let the case go to him.
 
“What’ve you done?”
 
“Shagged your sister. I brought my own paper bags.”
 
The lads snickered, which made Quigley purse up his lips like an old woman. “That’s not funny.”
 
“Too close to the bone?”
 
Richie was openmouthed and practically hopping off his chair with curiosity. I flipped my comb out of my pocket and gave it a quick run through my hair. “Am I good?”
 
“Lick-arse,” Quigley said, through his sulk. I ignored him.
 
“Yeah,” Richie said. “You’re grand. What . . . ?”
 
“Don’t go anywhere,” I repeated, and went after O’Kelly.
 
My second hint: he was up behind his desk, with his hands in his trouser pockets, rolling up and down on the balls of his feet. This case had pumped up his adrenaline enough that he wouldn’t fit in his chair. “You took your time.”
 
“Sorry, sir.”
 
He stayed where he was, sucking his teeth and rereading the call sheet on his desk. “How’s the Mullen file coming along?”
 
I had spent the last few weeks putting together a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions on one of those tricky drug dealer messes, making sure the little bastard didn’t have a single crack to slime through. Some detectives think their job’s done the second the charges are filed, but I take it personally when one of my catches wriggles off the hook, which they seldom do. “Good to go. Give or take.”
 
“Could someone else finish it up?”
 
“Not a problem.”
 
He nodded and kept reading. O’Kelly likes you to ask—it shows you know who’s boss—and since he is in fact my boss, I have no problem rolling over like a good little doggie when it makes things run more smoothly. “Did something come in, sir?”
 
“Do you know Brianstown?”
 
“Haven’t heard of it.”
 
“Neither had I. It’s one of those new places; up the coast, past Balbriggan. Used to be called Broken Bay, something.”
 
“Broken Harbor,” I said. “Yeah. I know Broken Harbor.”
 
“It’s Brianstown now. And by tonight the whole country’ll have heard of it.”
 
I said, “This is a bad one.”
 
O’Kelly laid one heavy palm on the call sheet, like he was holding it down. He said, “Husband, wife and two kids, stabbed in their own home. The wife’s headed for hospital; it’s touch and go. The rest are dead.”
 
We left that for a moment, listening to the small tremors it sent through the air. I said, “How did it come in?”
 
“The wife’s sister. They talk every morning, but today she couldn’t get through. That got her het up enough that she got in her car and headed out to Brianstown. Car’s in the driveway, lights are on in broad daylight, no one’s answering the door, she rings the uniforms. They break the door down and surprise, surprise.”
 
“Who’s on scene?”
 
“Just the uniforms. They took one look and figured they were out of their depth, called it straight in.”
 
“Beautiful,” I said. There are plenty of morons out there who would have spent hours playing detective and churning the whole case to shit, before they admitted defeat and called in the real thing. It looked like we had lucked into a pair with functioning brains.
 
“I want you on this. Can you take it?”
 
“I’d be honored.”
 
“If you can’t drop everything else, tell me now and I’ll put Flaherty on this one. This takes priority.”
 
Flaherty is the guy with the slam dunks and the top solve rate. I said, “That won’t be necessary, sir. I can take it.”
 
“Good,” O’Kelly said, but he didn’t hand over the call sheet. He tilted it to the light, inspecting it and rubbing a thumb along his jawline. “Curran,” he said. “Is he able for this?”
 
Young Richie had been on the squad all of two weeks. A lot of the lads don’t like training in the new boys, so I do it. If you know your job, you have a responsibility to pass the knowledge on. “He will be,” I said.
 
“I can stick him somewhere else for a while, give you someone who knows what he’s at.”
 
“If Curran can’t take the heat, we might as well find out now.” I didn’t want someone who knew what he was at. The bonus of newbie wrangling is that it saves you a load of hassle: all of us who’ve been around a while have our own ways of doing things, and too many cooks etcetera. A rookie, if you know how to handle him, slows you down a lot less than another old hand. I couldn’t afford to waste time playing after-you-no-after-you, not on this one.
 
“You’d be the lead man, either way.”
 
“Trust me, sir. Curran can handle it.”
 
“It’s a risk.”
 
Rookies spend their first year or so on probation. It’s not official, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. If Richie made a mistake straight out of the gate, in a spotlight this bright, he might as well start clearing out his desk. I said, “He’ll do fine. I’ll make sure he does.”
 
O’Kelly said, “Not just for Curran. How long since you had a big one?”
 
His eyes were on me, small and sharp. My last high-profile one went wrong. Not my fault—I got played by someone I thought was a friend, dropped in the shit and left there—but still, people remember. I said, “Almost two years.”
 
“That’s right. Clear this one, and you’re back on track.”
 
He left the other half unspoken, something dense and heavy on the desk between us. I said, “I’ll clear it.”
 
O’Kelly nodded. “That’s what I thought. Keep me posted.” He leaned forward, across the desk, and passed me the call sheet.
 
“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.”
 
“Cooper and the Tech Bureau are on their way.” Cooper is the pathologist. “You’ll need manpower; I’ll have the General Unit send you out a bunch of floaters. Six do you, for now?”
 
“Six sounds good. If I need more, I’ll call in.”
 
O’Kelly added, as I was leaving, “And for Jesus’ sake do something about Curran’s gear.”
 
“I had a word last week.”
 
“Have another. Was that a bloody hoodie he had on him yesterday?”
 
“I’ve got him out of runners. One step at a time.”
 
“If he wants to stay on this case, he’d better manage a few giant steps before you hit the scene. The media’ll be all over this like flies on shite. At least make him keep his coat on, cover up his tracksuit or whatever he’s honored us with today.”
 
“I’ve got a spare tie in my desk. He’ll be fine.” O’Kelly muttered something sour about a pig in a tuxedo.
 
On my way back to the squad room I skimmed the call sheet: just what O’Kelly had already told me. The victims were Patrick Spain, his wife, Jennifer, and their kids, Emma and Jack. The sister who had called it in was Fiona Rafferty. Under her name the dispatcher had added, in warning capitals, NB: OFFICER ADVISES CALLER IS HYSTERICAL.
 
* * *
 
Richie was up out of his seat, bobbing from foot to foot like he had springs in his knees. “What . . . ?”
 
“Get your gear. We’re going out.”
 
“I told you,” Quigley said to Richie.
 
Richie gave him the wide-eyed innocents. “Did you, yeah? Sorry, man, wasn’t paying attention. Other stuff on my mind, know what I mean?”
 
“I’m trying to do you a favor here, Curran. You can take it or leave it.” Quigley’s wounded look was still on.
 
I threw my coat on and started checking my briefcase. “Sounds like a fascinating chat you two were having. Care to share?”
 
“Nothing,” Richie said promptly. “Shooting the breeze.”
 
“I was just letting young Richie know,” Quigley told me, self-righteously. “Not a good sign, the Super calling you in on your own. Giving you the info behind our Richie’s back. What does that say about where he stands on the squad? I thought he might want to have a little think about that.”
 
Quigley loves playing Haze the Newbie, just like he loves leaning on suspects one notch too hard; we’ve all done it, but he gets more out of it than most of us do. Usually, though, he has the brains to leave my boys alone. Richie had pissed him off somehow. I said, “He’s going to have plenty to think about, over the next while. He can’t afford to get distracted by pointless crap. Detective Curran, are we good to go?”
 
“Well,” Quigley said, tucking his chins into each other. “Don’t mind me.”
 
“I never do, chum.” I slid the tie out of my drawer and into my coat pocket under cover of the desk: no need to give Quigley ammo. “Ready, Detective Curran? Let’s roll.”
 
“See you ’round,” Quigley said to Richie, not pleasantly, on our way out. Richie blew him a kiss, but I wasn’t supposed to see it, so I didn’t.
 
It was October, a thick, cold, gray Tuesday morning, sulky and tantrumy as March. I got my favorite silver Beemer out of the car pool—officially it’s first come first served, but in practice no Domestic Violence kid is going to go near a Murder D’s best ride, so the seat stays where I like it and no one throws burger wrappers on the floor. I would have bet I could still navigate to Broken Harbor in my sleep, but this wasn’t the day to find out I was wrong, so I set the GPS. It didn’t know where Broken Harbor was. It wanted to go to Brianstown.
 
Richie had spent his first two weeks on the squad helping me work up the file on the Mullen case and re-interview the odd witness; this was the first real Murder action he’d seen, and he was practically shooting out of his shoes with excitement. He managed to hold it in till we got moving. Then he burst out with, “Are we on a case?”
 
“We are.”
 
“What kind of case?”
 
“A murder case.” I stopped at a red, pulled out the tie and passed it over. We were in luck: he was wearing a shirt, even if it was a cheapo white thing so thin I could see where his chest hair should have been, and a pair of gray trousers that would have been almost OK if they hadn’t been a full size too big. “Put that on.”
 
He looked at it like he had never seen one before. “Yeah?”
 
“Yeah.”
 
For a moment I thought I was going to have to pull over and do it for him—the last time he had worn one had probably been for his confirmation—but he managed it in the end, give or take. He tilted the sun-visor mirror to check himself out. “Looking sharp, yeah?”
 
“Better,” I said. O’Kelly had a point: the tie made bugger-all difference. It was a nice one, maroon silk with a subtle stripe in the weave, but some people can wear the good stuff and some just can’t. Richie is five foot nine on his best day, all elbows and skinny legs and narrow shoulders—he looks about fourteen, although his file says he’s thirty-one—and call me prejudiced, but after one glance I could have told you exactly what kind of neighborhood he comes from. It’s all there: that too-short no-color hair, those sharp features, that springy, restless walk like he’s got one eye out for trouble and the other one out for anything unlocked. On him, the tie just looked nicked.

Reader's Guide

INTRODUCTION

Pat Spain and his wife, Jenny, always believed that, as long as they played by the rules, things would work out all right. It was with this faith that they fell in love, had their two beautiful children, and took out a 110 percent mortgage to buy their first home—a house in a new, lavishly advertised development on the Irish seacoast in an area freshly re–christened “Brianstown” but once known to all as Broken Harbor. But things do not work out all right. As recession chokes the country, the developers fail to finish the neighborhood, property values plummet, and Pat loses his job.

Then, on an autumn morning, Jenny’s sister discovers the couple in a pool of blood. Pat is dead, and Jenny is nearly so. Upstairs in the children’s rooms awaits a still more crushing horror.

Enter Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, ace Murder Squad detective. Kennedy is quick to realize that the Spain case is a “dream case” and that he is just the man for it. If all goes well, the case will cement his position as top man in his department.

But, as with the Spains themselves, very little goes well. Scorcher is partnered with Richie Curran, a rookie detective with a lot to learn. At the crime scene, nothing adds up. The Spains were so fastidious that they lined up their shampoo bottles, yet the police discover gaping holes bashed in the interior walls of their house. There are no signs of forced entry, which points to an inside job, but everyone swears that Pat and Jenny were the world’s most loving couple.

Then a break comes: a search of a nearby house reveals that a squatter has been keeping the Spains under surveillance. But when the stalker is captured, his story yields only more mysteries. As Jenny fights for life in intensive care, Scorcher hears the clock ticking. He can hold the suspect for only a few days without charging him, and still no answers come.

At the same time, an even deeper enigma is playing itself out in Scorcher’s head. Broken Harbor is, for him, a place laden with nightmarish memories. As he descends further into the tragedy of the Spain family, his investigation drags him ever deeper into his own terrors. And there, making everything worse, is his mentally unstable sister, Dina, who is the last person to let sleeping dogs lie.

Brooding in its reflections on the current Irish economy, keenly insightful into hearts and minds of its characters, Broken Harbor is a finely wrought police procedural, but it is ever so much more. Unflinchingly, it narrates the struggle of a good but tortured man to push back a rising tide of wildness and outrage, both in society and in his own battered spirit. Above all else, Scorcher depends on order and control to keep his world from spinning into chaos. But in Broken Harbor madness lurks around every corner. Just beyond the edge of civility and tidy appearances, a beast crouches, cunning, pitiless, and always ready to strike.

 

ABOUT TANA FRENCH

Born in Vermont, Tana French had a peripatetic childhood that took her to Ireland, Florence, and Rome, as well as the African nation of Malawi. A resident of Dublin since 1990, she has a degree in Drama and English from Trinity College. Prior to her writing career, she was best known as an actor in a wide variety of theatrical productions in Dublin. Her debut novel, In the Woods, was honored with the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards. She lives in Dublin with her husband and daughter. Broken Harbor is her fourth book.

 

A CONVERSATION WITH TANA FRENCH

Q. Your books resonate beyond their particular plots and the characters; your fiction comments on the distressed conditions that currently exist in Ireland. How does Broken Harbor express concerns about your adopted country?

I think if you write mystery, you’re going to end up, at some level, focusing on your society’s priorities and tensions and deepest fears. You’re writing about murder, the biggest fear of all—and the way that fear expresses itself is obviously going to be shaped by its time and place. Take the flood of serial–killer books in the 80s and 90s: I figure those were a response to the growing sense of isolation and anonymity in cities, where the threat isn’t your nearest and dearest any more, the way it is in small–town Agatha Christie; it’s some faceless, nameless stranger. So, while Broken Harbor was never intended to be an “issue book” or anything like that, I was writing it in Ireland from 2009 through 2011, and that seeped in.

Ireland is an epic mess. That’s the mildest way I can put it. And it’s my generation, the thirty–somethings, who are taking the brunt of it. Not me and my husband personally, or most of our friends—we were broke actors for most of the boom, so we couldn’t afford to buy a dog kennel in the middle of nowhere, never mind an actual home. That upset me at the time, but it turned out to have a silver lining in the end. Now a solid proportion of our generation are stuck on half–built, half–occupied, abandoned estates with open sewage pits and no street lighting, miles from any friends or family, and many of their houses are falling to pieces. They’re unemployed or being taxed to the point where they can’t pay their mortgages, and no one’s ever going to buy their houses so they can move on. And their belief in a sane world, a world where they have any control over their own lives, has been smashed.

That haunts me. It should never have happened; it didn’t need to happen. And because Ireland is my home and I love it, I get seriously passionate and seriously angry about terrible things that are done to, and by, this country. That ended up shaping the book.

Q. Some of the worst villains in Broken Harbor are invisible and unassailable—not just the animal in the Spains’ attic, but also the financiers and real estate promoters. What do you think about their culpability in the events of Broken Harbor?

Don’t forget the politicians. For reasons made up of a hellish brew of stupidity, cronyism, and corruption, they were right in there with the property developers and the banks, frantically urging my generation to spend ten times our income on unbuilt houses in the middle of nowhere. Our then-Prime Minister said, charmingly, that anyone who didn’t believe the property boom could last forever should kill themselves.

I don’t believe that the people who fell for the hype are innocent victims. They were grown adults, they signed the contracts, no one forced them; there are plenty of people who said no, and they had the choice to do the same. But at the same time. These are people who were trying their absolute best to do everything right. Everything and everyone around them told them that this was the right thing to do, so they did it. And I think it would be ludicrous to say that the people who urged them on are guiltless.

Psychological mystery is a natural place to explore that whole area - the ambiguity of guilt. There are other mysteries where culpability is a straightforward thing: X killed Y because X is a bad person, the end. And they’re wonderfully satisfying and necessary books, because it’s very cathartic to place and contain evil within one person, with the implication that once that person’s in jail, evil has been purged and the world of the book is safe again. But psychological mystery is a lot less at home with the idea of evil being neatly bounded and simple to confine. In psychological mystery, evil is often a facet of a lot of the characters, not just the killer, and the most evil actions don’t necessarily come from the most evil people - and so, while the justice system punishes the evil action, sometimes the truly evil people do in fact walk away, unassailable.

Q. That animal in the attic is one of the strangest touches in your story. It’s a little like the beast in Lord of the Flies. How did you hit upon it as a plot device?

That’s actually where the whole book began! One night a few years ago, I went into the kitchen, and before I could switch the light on, I half–saw something leap out from behind the toaster, zip across the counter and vanish. I jumped about three feet, but I couldn’t find any sign of anything, and my now–husband gave me a dubious look and gently mentioned my overactive imagination. I was a bit miffed, and a bit wary around the kitchen, but it wasn’t a big deal. And a couple of nights later my husband was the one who went into the kitchen, and he turned on the light in time to see a mouse doing a runner down behind the cooker.

We got some traps and a new toaster, I managed not to say “Told you so,” and that was the end of that—except that something stayed in my mind: the frightening sense of dislocation that comes when your inner reality and your outer reality get out of synch; when what you know to be true and what others see aren’t the same thing. I started thinking about what it would be like if the half–seen something had zipped past someone whose home and marriage were already under threat from outside forces; what it would be like if the mouse didn’t show up on Day 3, if this guy went on hearing his home being invaded by an animal that no one else could hear . . . And a couple of years later, that fit together in my mind with what was happening to people around the economic boom and crash—the utter dislocation between the obvious reality and what we were being told, between what people believed and what was happening all around them. Basically, Broken Harbor was written because we had mice.

Q. Your ongoing fascination with flawed heroes with tortured pasts reminds us very strongly of Greek tragedy. Does your experience with staged drama influence your writing of fiction?

I’ve never taken a creative writing course or anything like that; my equivalent, my writing training, was my time as an actor. Just about everything I learned about acting, except maybe “Never take a bite of cake just before your line,” translates to writing.

Here’s one of the things I learned: a character who’s everything he wants to be, and has everything he wants to have, isn’t interesting. Dramatically, that’s the equivalent of watching some guy sit on his sofa eating Doritos and playing Xbox for a couple of hours: yeah, he’s happy, so what? This is going nowhere. What’s interesting is a character who’s struggling towards something high–stakes, and getting held back by obstacles both outside and inside himself.

In a murder mystery, the external stakes are automatically right up there; stakes don’t get much higher than life, death, truth and justice. The internal stakes are the reason why all my narrators have been damaged, whether temporarily or permanently. Most people are, in one way or another; they’re finding ways to deal with that damage, whether by fighting it or assimilating it or suppressing it. And my books are about the cases that force the narrators to come face to face with the damage—’the cases that mean they can’t keep it under wraps and try to work around it any more, they have to confront it and either move past it or be defined by it forever.

Rob Ryan in In the Woods doesn’t manage to move beyond the damage done by his childhood friends’ disappearance; inThe Likeness, Cassie Maddox is traumatized by the events of In the Woods, but through the events of the book she starts to heal; in Faithful Place, Frank Mackey’s whole perception of himself and his life is changed as he finds out the truth about his first love’s disappearance, and he ends up freed, to some extent, from his old scars. And Broken Harbor is about the case that breaks down Scorcher’s belief in an orderly world governed by reason and the law of cause and effect—the belief that’s been holding him together since childhood. Without that prop, he has to find a new and different way to live.

Or, to put it more concisely: when in doubt, mess with your character’s head.

Q. There’s a lot of thoughtful material in Broken Harbor dealing with male friendship, both between Scorcher and Richie and between Pat and Conor. As a woman, did you find it challenging make these relationships come to life on the page?

Friendship has always been hugely important to me. Probably this is obvious from the books—In the Woods and The Likeness both have friendship at their hearts. I think of it as an essential of life, like water; you can be a perfectly happy, fulfilled person without a partner, or without kids, but I’m not sure it can be done without friends. And when friendship or the capacity for friendship is under attack—because of someone’s own internal damage, like in Scorcher’s case, or because of outside pressures, like in Pat and Conor’s—it strikes right at the core of you, just as powerfully and painfully as when romantic love is under attack. If Scorcher and Richie were able to find their way, that last step to a real friendship, this book would end very differently for both of them.

At its heart, friendship is the same crucial thing whether it’s between men or women. The differences lie in the ways it’s expressed—and when you come down to it, those differences depend on who the individual people are, far more than on whether they’re men or women. I stick to focusing on the specific characters, trying to capture the ways their friendships take shape, the small trivial details that show the underlying layers of trust and love much more clearly than any amount of hugs and deep conversation. Whether the characters are men or women is a factor, sure—and luckily I’ve always had plenty of guy friends, so I’ve seen lots of male friendships in action—but it’s not the only factor, or even the most important one.

Q. Some of the childhoods you portray in Broken Harbor are deeply troubling times. What are your thoughts about childhood in general?

I was lucky: I had a happy childhood. But one thing that’s true of every childhood, happy or unhappy, is that it’s incredibly intense. You don’t have room for the levels of ambivalence and complexity that adults can manage; you’re whole–hearted. And you take in everything. I think you spend your first twenty years learning absolutely everything you’re exposed to, and the next ten or twenty years trying to unlearn the bad bits. Whatever’s in a child’s life, the child assumes it’s a universal truth.

Scorcher learned things that children shouldn’t: that the responsibility for the world rests on his shoulders; and that even the tiniest loss of control can lead to chaos. Those have been built into him, and they take their toll.

Q. Your novel is extremely frank in its confrontation of madness and the ways in which mental illness can fracture lives. Why do you think the theme of madness is so especially interesting in a police procedural novel?

That theme wasn’t deliberate. This will sound bizarre, but I didn’t even realize until a few weeks ago, when someone pointed it out to me, that almost every character in the book is mentally unstable, to some degree; that madness permeates the whole book. It’s very weird to realize just how much of a book is written by your subconscious.

I do think the theme of madness is a natural match for a police procedural—not just in criminal terms, but in psychological ones—which is probably why it shows up relatively often. Procedurals are all about order and control. Murder is the ultimate attack on that order, both societally and psychologically, and it’s up to the detectives to fight off the chaos and turn it back into some kind of order so that we have a society we can live in. Madness is the opposite journey—order fragmenting into chaos, the laws of cause and effect breaking down. The clash between those two, and what it does to a detective caught in the middle, is natural territory for a book.

Q. Your characters in Broken Harbor deal with madness—and suspicions of madness—in radically different ways, with different results. Are there lessons to be learned here?

Definitely no lessons to be learned. I don’t do those. I’m in no position to be giving anyone lessons about anything—specially mental illness, since I’ve been lucky enough, touch wood, that it hasn’t played much of a role in my life. When I write a book that touches on something as big as madness (or murder, for that matter), I’m not trying to teach anyone about it—I don’t think that’s my job, and I wouldn’t be qualified if it were. I’m just trying to understand it, even the smallest bit.

I think the theme of madness was basically inevitable when I started writing a book set in a ghost estate. Those ghost estates were created out of Irish national madness; they’re insanity made solid. There was an overwhelming cultural push towards the idea that, as long as you believe something hard enough, it automatically becomes true: if you keep believing that the boom will last forever, then of course it will, and if you doubt that, well then, it’ll be your fault if it all goes wrong! The actual facts were irrelevant and unpatriotic. There was a national–level fracture between reality and perception; perception wasn’t expected to have any link to reality.

Obviously all experience is subjective, to some extent. But when you start believing that your personal perception is all that matters, that outside reality doesn’t need to be taken into account, then you’re taking a huge leap down the path towards madness. Every form of madness, as far as I can tell, is based on that disconnect in some way or other.

One thing I’ve noticed, since someone pointed out to me what this book’s about: the characters who survive with the least psychological damage are probably Richie, Scorcher’s partner; Conor, the man who’s been spying on the Spains from an abandoned house; and Fiona, Jennifer Spain’s sister. I’m not saying they come out unscathed—they definitely don’t—but, at their cores, they retain some kind of wholeness; under all the devastation, they’re still themselves. And those three are the ones who pay most attention to what’s outside themselves. They really listen to other people; they really watch what’s going on around them; they have, or gain, an awareness that other people’s lives are as real as their own, that reality exists outside of them as well as inside. Again, this wasn’t intentional, and it’s not a lesson or anything, but it does fit with the way I see madness: that dangerous dismissal of outside reality.

Q. More than once, the tragic center of your detective plot has fallen upon a question of inadmissible evidence. Do you have anything to say to someone who might read your books and say, “There, you see? Another perfectly provable case ruined by these stupid constitutional safeguards! We’d have more justice without them”?

The fact is that the system is human, and humans are flawed. Because of that, we absolutely need safeguards, to protect innocent people and to protect justice; but inevitably, those very safeguards sometimes go wrong and end up jeopardizing the exact things they’re meant to protect—releasing a killer to kill again, for example. This is one of the many things about detectives that leaves me awestruck: their job is to navigate that Mobius strip, and to try and come as close as possible to justice within it.

Every now and then, the truth and the rules turn into the two halves of a vice grip, squashing the detective and the case between them—and some part of the detective is inevitably going to get crushed. Either he has to stand by and bite his tongue while justice gets thrown out the window, or he has to break the rules that are there for excellent and crucial reasons—and either way, a part of his integrity is sacrificed.

That’s what happens to Scorcher. His whole view of the world gets crushed in that vice–grip by the events of the book. By the end, he’s had to sacrifice his idea of who he is, and of what his life is going to be, in order to hold onto something that will make the world a recognizable, and bearable, place.

I don’t know how detectives do it.

Q. We were a bit surprised that Frank doesn’t come back for a cameo in Broken Harbor. His relationship with Scorcher in your previous book was so heavily charged.

This is one of the things I enjoy about writing linked books with a different narrator each time: you get to explore that subjectivity that I was talking about earlier, how two people can see the same person or event in two completely different lights. Frank sees his relationship with Scorcher as heavily charged—but that’s mainly because, when Scorcher resurfaces in his life, Frank’s just found out that his first love was murdered, and that the narrative that was the basis for his whole adult life isn’t true. He needs an enemy; he needs someone to fight against. Until he finds out who the killer is, Scorcher—partly because he’s so attached to the rules, which really aren’t Frank’s thing—will do nicely.

But Scorcher doesn’t really see Frank the same way. To Scorcher, Frank isn’t particularly important, at least not at this point in his life—because he doesn’t need Frank, either as an enemy or as an ally. He’s already got more than he can cope with on both fronts. Whoever killed the Spains, plus the bits of Scorcher’s past that the murder churns up, adds up to plenty of enemy for anyone, especially someone as focused and single–minded as Scorcher. As far as allies go, he’s got Richie—who may not seem like much of an ally, considering how young and how new he is, but Scorcher’s not used to having allies at all; he’s used to flying solo, and he doesn’t have an easy time wrapping his head around the idea that he’s starting to see Richie as a partner. So there wasn’t really any room for Frank in his world, or in the book.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m partway through my fifth book, which is currently called The Secret Place. The narrator this time is Stephen Moran, Frank’s young sidekick from Faithful Place. Frank’s daughter, Holly, now sixteen, shows up at Stephen’s work with a postcard she found on the noticeboard where girls in her school can post their secrets anonymously —a postcard with a photo of a murdered teenage boy, and the caption “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.”

And this time Frank does come back!

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • French’s protagonist, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, prides himself on his self–control. Is Scorcher’s self–control as strong as he imagines? In what other ways might Scorcher’s self–image be somewhat incorrect?
  • French writes with considerable affection for Ireland. However, her books often contain more than a hint of lament for the country’s recent decline. What aspects of Ireland in the present day seem to sadden her most?
  • Scorcher believes that post–modern society has begun to turn “feral” and that “everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand” (p. 85). Do you agree with Scorcher’s assessment? Explain why or why not. How does Scorcher’s view of society dovetail with his self–image?
  • How do Scorcher’s class prejudices affect his perceptions of the Spain case? Is class bias the only reason he is so desperate to believe in the integrity of Patrick Spain?
  • The relationship between Scorcher and Richie evolves rapidly, beginning as one between an all–wise mentor and his trainee but transforming into a much more contentious one. Discuss this evolution and the ways French uses it to develop the two men’s characters.
  • Why do you think Scorcher doesn’t want to have children? Try to come up with as many plausible explanations as you can.
  • Tana French is a master of creating characters with virtues that are turned into vices by unlucky circumstances. What are some examples of this kind of characterization in Broken Harbor, and how do they act as a commentary on human nature?
  • Explaining her madness, Dina says, “There is no why.” Why is this statement especially disturbing to her brother, Scorcher?
  • How has Scorcher’s childhood shaped the person he is now?
  • How have the more youthful experiences of Conor, Pat, and Jenny shaped their characters and destinies?
  • Tana French manages the emotions of her interrogation scenes with great expertise, creating tremendous tensions and moving toward great crescendos of feeling. Read over one of these scenes and discuss how the emotional force builds, breaks, and subsides.
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