Broken Harbor by Tana French: A review

Okay, I think I'm beginning to get it. Tana French's psychological thrillers all feature damaged characters at their core. Their haunting, unforgettable stories are revealed to the reader slowly, tantalizingly. At the beginning of the books, things seem to move at a glacial pace as we get our footing. Then, all of a sudden, we are hurled into warp speed and struggling to keep our bearings as French plays mind games with us and toys with our expectations. Delicious!

There's another thing that is becoming clear about French's method as well. Each book, after In the Woods, has a different detective at its center, but, in each case, we have met that detective before, usually in the previous book. Broken Harbor has Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy as its narrator and main character, but I had to read the publisher's synopsis of the book to be reminded that Scorcher appeared as a colleague of Undercover Detective Frank Mackey in the last book, Faithful Place. Frankly, I couldn't remember him, but I don't think I'll be forgetting him soon after this book.

Scorcher and his partner, rookie Richie Curran, are assigned to investigate a particularly vicious, brutal crime. In the middle of the night in a subdivision called Brianstown, the picture-perfect middle-class Spain family has been attacked, leaving the young daughter (Emma) and son (Jack) and the father (Pat) dead and the mother (Jenny) barely clinging to life. Arriving at the house, the detectives find a blood soaked scene in the kitchen where the bodies of the parents were found. Otherwise, the house is in perfect order, clean, neat, everything in place. There is one curious thing; throughout the house, there are unexplained holes in the walls, as if something or someone had punched through them.

As the investigation begins, we see all the usual elements of a police procedural: the wrenching autopsies, the forensics team picking up and analyzing clues, the interminable interrogations of suspects and witnesses. But wait! There's more! It becomes a full-on psychological thriller as Scorcher and his team delve into the minds of the perfect family gone wrong.

The family had bought their home in the Irish seaside community of 250 new homes built just for families like them, young, affluent, middle-class, growing. But the community turned out to be built on dreams and nothing much else. After a few years, the shoddily built houses began to have myriad problems, and then the housing boom and the economy went bust and Brianstown became nothing but a half-built ghost town that was nothing like what its builders had promised.

Then, the father in the perfect family lost his job and couldn't find another and their world began its final collapse.   

On a parallel track of the story, we learn that when Scorcher Kennedy was growing up, he and his family used to spend two weeks each summer in the area now called Brianstown - except then it was called Broken Harbor. It was the place where his family, especially his mother, was the happiest. But one summer, his mother walked into the sea there and took her own life. After that, the youngest child, a daughter named Dina, lost her tenuous grip on reality and descended into madness. When we meet her all these years later, Scorcher ("Mikey" as she calls him) and his other sister struggle to care for their youngest sibling and keep her out of an institution. 

It begins to be clear that this novel isn't as much about murder as it is about the fragile human mind and the things that can cause it to go off the rails and slip into deep waters, perhaps irretrievably.  

Meanwhile, the investigation of the murder goes on and it leads the detectives in different directions. First, the evidence points towards one suspect and then another, but it's not clear what either person would have had to gain by murder, especially the murder of children. After a while, the two detectives begin to diverge in their opinions about who committed the murders and Scorcher struggles to keep his investigation on track. I was right there with them, confused all the way, right up until the end.

Tana French seems to have perfected her technique in telling these Dublin Murder Squad stories: Start slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly, and patiently lay out all the groundwork for the tale, then move right on to full page-turner mode and keep the reader guessing all the way. She executes that technique flawlessly in Broken Harbor. It's hard to see how she could get any better.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


  1. Perfect! I think I'll definitely start reading this series now. :-)

    1. Just be sure to start with the first one and enjoy!

  2. Agree! Completely!! She is a genius. And like Sara Paretsky, each novel is right up to date on the issues of its time. My review:

    1. Thanks for the link. I read your review and it summed up the book perfectly. And I certainly agree that French's books are right up to the minute on the issues of the day, as are Paretsky's, another favorite.


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