Four books into her Dublin Murder Squad series, Tana French has lost some of the new-girl-on-the-block cachet she earned with her bestselling debut, 2007’s critical darling In The Woods. She’s still writing compelling, well-paced murder mysteries, but the mystery-novel/literary-novel blend that read as unique and formula-busting five years ago now simply reads as French’s personal formula.
In Broken Harbor, as in its predecessors, a secondary character from the previous book becomes the narrator of the latest. In this case, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy—who played martinet to Frank Mackey’s rogue in 2010’s Faithful Place—is assigned to a triple murder in Broken Harbor, a half-built housing development in the suburbs of Dublin where Kennedy spent summers (one of them notably tragic) as a child.
The victims are Pat Spain and his two young children. Pat’s wife Jenny was also attacked, but is found alive and in a coma. The Spains bought into Broken Harbor while it was being developed; shortly afterward, Pat was laid off and they sunk deeply into debt, surrounded by empty houses no one was buying.
Following French’s formula, there’s a murder, the grim economic realities of Ireland, and a detective with an intensely personal connection to the case. In Broken Harbor, however, those elements don’t intertwine as organically as in her previous books. To begin with, French challenged herself with Kennedy, the least likeable of her narrators so far. French is more successful when writing detectives outside the establishment—too young, too independent, too female. Kennedy, by contrast, is the establishment, rigid and unpleasant on purpose. French wanted to examine the kind of man who would turn into a pontificating asshole, and the cost is a book full of pontification and assholery. She gives him an unbalanced younger sister to provide instant humanity, but that character just ups the annoyance factor.
Kennedy’s connection to the case doesn’t have the emotional weight of the previous books, either. The fact that he spent a horrible summer in Broken Harbor a few decades ago feels like a coincidence he won’t be quiet about. Dublin County is a small place, after all.
But these drawbacks are only significant by comparison with French’s earlier work. As ever, the mystery is solid. French has a particular gift, which she passes on to her detectives, of piecing together the victims’ world—not just the scene of the crime, but their lives, relationships, habits, and secrets. French’s detectives expand the net to include the victims’ entire life before they tighten it around whatever lit the spark for murder. As Kennedy pontificates at one point, murder is the only crime that forces people to ask “Why?” and French has a knack for motives, always burying them deep within the world she builds.
French has reported that her next book’s narrator is Stephen Moran, the rookie cop Frank Mackey convinced to be a mole in Faithful Place. He sounds like just the detective she needs to return to the heights Broken Harbor didn’t reach. While it’s a first-rate mystery, it’s still merely an exemplar of a genre French already transcended.