Putting the spook into suburbia
Broken Harbour By Tana French. Hachette Books Ireland, 534pp. £13.99
A GHOST ESTATE is a perfect location for a contemporary crime novel: isolated, lonely and spooky in a way that has nothing to do with the supernatural. For a thoughtful Irish crime writer such as Tana French, who is always concerned with the psychology behind everyday actions and events, a ghost estate is a crumbling temple of lost hope, despair, pretence and the futility of keeping up appearances. It’s a location that adds texture to her latest, tightly wrought police procedural.
Broken Harbour, French’s fourth novel, is once again set in Dublin: this time it’s in the far-flung, newly developed commuter belt, in Ocean View, a sparsely populated estate of large, once expensive houses, destined never to be finished or fully lived in because the economic meltdown overtook the developer and potential buyers.
“I half expected feral dogs to slink up around the car when I stopped, last survivors to come staggering and moaning out of skeleton houses,” says lead detective Mick Kennedy, arriving to investigate the bloody murder of the Spain family – two young children and the father. The mother survives but is hospitalised in a critical condition. Is it a murder or suicide – French wouldn’t have had to go too far back through Irish newspaper archives to find real-life examples – or a suburban murderer on a spree?
Right up to the last few chapters she lays out red herrings for both us and the detectives to ponder. Her two most intriguing characters are men: detective Kennedy and the murdered father, Pat Spain. Kennedy comes with a briefcase full of crime-novel tropes, but that’s fine as French gives him, and those around him, the sparky Dublin dialogue needed to flesh him out. He’s a maverick, a loner professionally, dedicated to the job, and with a complicated personal life: he’s divorced, lives alone and is the go-to guy for his beautiful, mentally ill bohemian sister, Dina, who ricochets around Dublin, hurting nobody but herself but in need of regular refuge in Kennedy’s flat.
The murders at the seaside at Broken Harbour challenge him in two ways: long before the boom and the building of Ocean View, he had holidayed there in a caravan park as a teenager, and it is where his mother chose to walk into the sea and take her own life.
While this is French’s fourth crime novel, the books are not a series, as tends to be the way in this genre. Kennedy is a different, more secretive, more complicated character than detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox in In the Woods and The Likeness and detective Frank Mackay in Faithful Place. And he’s been given an enthusiastic recruit, the hoodie-wearing Richie, as a partner to mentor on the triple-murder case – something that he finds a challenge at first but that slowly awakens a sort of paternal instinct in him. “You’re not 15, chum. Dressing like a mugger doesn’t make you a big daring threat to the Establishment; it just makes you a prat,” is his first piece of advice.
Pat Spain is also complex and compelling, and he is revealed as French coolly explores his mental deterioration in the months leading up to the murder.
The Spains were a Celtic Tiger couple – hardworking, two cars, two beautiful kids, a busy social life – and upward mobility took them to a new housing development that was luxurious but far from their friends – and then Pat lost his job. But being optimistic Celtic cubs, who couldn’t imagine a different type of world, they thought another high-paying job would soon come along, so they lived on their savings and maintained appearances and their lifestyle. And then a deep paranoia gripped Pat that there was a creature – a mink? a badger? – living in the walls of the house, nature on the attack, and he became obsessed with hunting the animal out by increasingly bizarre methods. He was protecting his family, even though his role as breadwinner was gone.
What Kennedy must discover is whether this obsession tipped him into murder.
There’s a frequent lament that artists have been slow to respond to our economic depression, but the commentators who take this view surely haven’t immersed themselves in the work of our excellent new generation of crime writers, several of whom, including Tana French, set their work very much in the here and now. In Broken Harbour, as well as delivering a gruesome murder scene and some clever sleuthing, she picks away at the psychological damage the economic meltdown has done behind the glossy front doors of the new suburbia.
Bernice Harrison is an Irish Times journalist