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Ghost towns, broken souls and fragile minds and the myth of the perfect family

September 16, 2012 23 comments

Broken Harbor by Tana French

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 discovered Broken Harbor when Guy reviewed it. As I was going to Ireland a couple of weeks later, a crime fiction book set in the outskirts of Dublin was perfect timing.

The plot is quite simple: the Spain family lives in Brianstown, beside the sea and not far from Dublin. They bought a house in a new estate in an area that used to be known as Broken Habor. When detective Mike Kennedy and his rookie colleague Richie Curren are called at their house, it’s because Patrick Spain, his two children Emma and Jack are dead. His wife Jenny survived the massacre and is in the hospital. The Spains used to be the perfect family: Pat and Jenny are high-school sweethearts and still very much in love. They are excellent parents, doing everything by the book. Jenny takes pride in polishing her house and being a perfect housewife. Pat made good money before the crisis but then he lost his job. The murder occurred a few months after he was made redundant and their situation was starting to be desperate.

For me, the interest of the book is outside the whodunit aspect although I did want to know who killed the Spains. I enjoyed reading about the process of the case. Tana French really manages to show the reader that a case like this involves a lot of specialists, an army of uniforms— as Mike calls the policemen— to perform background researches. It’s a lot of teamwork, a great deal of organisation not to ruin evidence or overlook a possibility. She also describes well the dynamics among the cops at the police station.

Mike is a likeable narrator, very human in his weaknesses. The progress of the case is intertwined with memories of his childhood and his marriage, explanations about his life and how he came to view the world as he does.

It was a bad week to have to trust in either luck or humanity, but if I’m backed into that corner, I’ll go with luck every time.

He plays by the rules, likes to be methodological in his approach. He doesn’t want emotion involved. He likes procedures and sees them as a way to keep organized, as a safety net against mistakes. He wants to rely on his brain and only his brain. In his job —and his job means a lot to him—, and in his life, he doesn’t want to take risks. For example, he doesn’t want children even if his sister Dina says he’d be a good father:

‘I think I probably would. But probably’s not good enough. Because if we’re both wrong and I turned out to be a terrible father, what then? There would be absolutely nothing I could do. Once you find out, it’s too late: the kids are there, you can’t send them back. All you can do is keep on fucking them up, day after day, and watch while these perfect babies turn into wrecks in front of your eyes. I can’t do it, Dina. Either I’m not stupid enough or I’m not brave enough, but I can’t take that risk.’

Mike is a loner and at the station, he’s used to training young detectives. He doesn’t have a long time partner at work. The relationship he develops with Richie is fascinating and new to him. Richie comes from the working class suburbs of Dublin; he has an accent, dresses with cheap t-shirts and disregards ties. Mike’s work goes from explaining the proceedings of a case to teaching him how to dress to be taken seriously. Progressively, their relationship grows from teacher to student to equal detectives working side by side on a case. I thought it was something different from what I’d read before.

Mike doesn’t do personal relationships at work and so no one knows how complicated his private life might be. He’s a divorcé and he and his sister Gerri take care of their younger sister Dina when she has one of her crisis. Dina is mentally ill whatever that covers and doctors never diagnosed precisely her symptoms. For Mike and Dina, it just means that when she has a crisis, she requires 24/24 care. She can’t stay alone and needs to be minded like a child. And when it’s Mike’s turn to watch her, he needs to take paid leave and stay home. So when Dina has a crisis during the Spain case, it doesn’t help him work with a clear head. Dina becomes a thorn in his foot and it leads him into thinking about her health condition and its consequences for him and Gerri.

Mike’s internal turmoil is also mixed with considerations about Ireland, the economical development the country experienced thanks to incentive tax rules and the violent crash they had to face in the recent years. One of Pat’s friends says:

Work had dried up. It was the start of the crash – no one was saying it, not then, you were a traitor to the country if you noticed it, but I knew. Freelancers like me, we were the first ones that felt it.

The interviews of the Spains’ relatives and friends are the opportunity to talk about the atmosphere in the country during these years. Making money seemed a national sport and Tana French describes people changing into snobs; for me it’s something I associate with the 1980s, that materialistic quest for money and a bourgeois way of life. Here it’s like everybody wanted a piece of the cake —And indeed, why not?

The estate in Broken Harbor is unfinished; the crisis prevented the promoters from selling all the houses, they went bankrupt. So it’s a chilling area, with abandoned or half-finished houses and no shops or schools. It’s rather far from Dublin. According to Mike who knew the area as a child, the place wasn’t cheerful back then either. When I was in Ireland, I walked by such a neighbourhood in Waterville, in the ring of Kerry. I was reading Broken Harbor when we saw it and I took pictures for the upcoming billet. It gave us an eerie feeling, the area was closed to visitors. We felt uncomfortable close to these houses. It helped me picture Brianstown. I’m under the impression there are a few places like this in Ireland as one character says:

‘I read in the paper they’re talking about bulldozing these places, the ghost estates. Just smash them down to the ground, walk away and pretend it never happened.’

Besides the plot, the interesting relationship between Mike and Richie, the thoughts about mental illness and its consequences for the family of the sick person, the information about the current economic crisis in Ireland, this novel was also educational for my language. Of course, there’s the slang, I’ve learnt new words like bollix or gobsmacked including Irish words like eejit (I have no idea of how I should pronounce that). I’m amazed at the number of expressions available in the English language to say that someone turned crazy. And last but not least, there were the tremendous zoological moments where stoats, Pine martens, mustelids, weasels, minks, wolverines, gloutons are mentioned. I knew what a weasel was but only applied to a person; first time I know the slang word but not the original meaning. Otherwise, I needed several dictionaries as some aren’t in the kindle dictionary I have. It slowed my reading but I still enjoyed the book.

Now aren’t you curious about this book? I hope you are willing to meet Mike, to discover who killed the Spains and to understand why such a fauna was involved in this story.

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