The Usual Suspects discuss Broken Harbor by Tana French

October 11, 2013 at 2:21 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

brokenharbor_us  Someone in our group mentioned that a friend of hers had recently expressed surprised that we had never discussed a novel by Tana French. Tuesday night we remedied the omission by tackling Broken Harbor, this author’s latest magnum opus.

Tana French has won several awards and even more nominations since she burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2007 with Into the Woods. I’ve not read that novel; in fact, Broken Harbor is the first work by Tana French that I’ve read all the way through (although I almost didn’t – get all the way through, I mean). I had dipped my toe into both The Likeness and Faithful Place but was not enthralled by either. Rather, I was so put off by their length that I decided to bail early. I could tell French was a gifted writer, but I simply was not drawn in by her narratives. So I looked upon this Usual Suspects choice as a chance to stick with one of French’s titles and see if I could discern the magic that was clearly present for her many devoted readers, some of whom are in our group.

Tana French

Tana French

Susan, our group leader, started us off with some background on Tana French’s life and career. The author was born here in the U.S. but lived all over the world as a child. She attended Trinity College, Dublin, and trained as an actress. Ultimately she decided to make her home in Ireland, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. (There was the inevitable question of how French’s fist name should be pronounced. Your say ‘Tayna,’ I say ‘Tahna’….)

Susan then solicited the impressions of group members, and I confess, I couldn’t – and didn’t – wait to get my two cents in. When I took up Broken Harbor, I was hoping for an epiphany, a revelation as to why French is so widely praised. As you’ve probably already guessed, that did not happen. Instead, I found myself exasperated by this novel for a whole host of reasons.

First, let me stipulate that I began with the audiobook. The reader, Stephen Hogan, was excellent, putting in the right amount of Irish lilt without going over the top. And I was genuinely engaged, at least, at the beginning.  The novel begins with the description of a horrific  crime: the Spains, Patrick, Jenny, and their two children, have been savagely attacked in their home. By the time the police arrive, summoned by Jenny’s hysterical sister Fiona, all are deceased except for Jenny, who is clinging to life by a very slender thread.

By this time, we’ve met the detectives in charge of the investigation: Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and Richie Curran. “Scorcher” is  a hotshot on the Dublin Murder Squad who boasts a high solve rate. Richie is young and new, but Mick decides to partner with him anyway on this high profile case. He believes that Richie has potential, and that he, Mick, can help him to realize it.

Almost from the beginning of the novel, the character of Mick Kennedy was a problem  for me. I found him arrogant and preening. He’s condescending to Richie, who seemed to me almost from the beginning to have a better interviewing technique than his supposed mentor – more intuitive, more empathetic. I think part of the problem was that the novel is told in the first person by Mick. His trumpeting of his own virtues is oddly at variance with what the reader experiences in the course of the interviews with suspects and witnesses, where he comes across as very unsubtle and something of a bully. (Now I was assured that in Broken Harbor, he was considerably toned down from how he was depicted in French’s previous novel Faithful Place. I confess this rather amazed me.)

It was definitely time for me  to stop ranting and let others have their say. Someone suggested that Mick was a very insecure person who compensated for his feelings of inadequacy by adopting a kind of swaggering hubris as part of his public persona. When he was still a  child (or possibly a teenager, I don’t exactly recall), his mother committed suicide. This traumatic event happened while the family were on a seaside holiday – Mick, his parents, and his sisters Dina and Geri. While Geri and Mick grew to adulthood with their respective psyches more or less intact, Dina was not so lucky. When we first encounter her in Broken Harbor, she is a woman with fairly severe psychiatric issues, a diagnosed schizophrenic with occasional psychotic manifestations. When she descends on Mick, who’s in the midst of the high stakes, high pressure investigation into the attack on the Spains, she is unrelenting – completely focused on her own needs, alternately wheedling and raging at her brother.

Mick’s scenes with his unfortunate sister seemed to drag on forever. One sympathizes with her plight; nevertheless, she’ s a very unpleasant character to be around. Under the circumstances, Mick shows admirable forbearance in dealing with her. He is far more patient than I could ever have been, in a similar situation. (And I speak, to some degree, from my own experience.)

The events of Broken Harbor take place against the backdrop of the demise of the so-called Celtic Tiger. This is the term used to describe the Ireland’s economy from roughly the 1990s up to 2007. An economic boom, fueled by real estate speculation, heavy foreign investment, and questionable banking practices was followed inevitably by the bust. (Sound familiar?)

Pat and Jenny have recently moved into a new development called Ocean View. It’s far enough from Dublin that they can’t reach friends and family easily. Meanwhile the amenities promised by the developers fail to materialize; homes languish in a partially completed state; neighbors are few and far between and not particularly disposed to be neighborly. And why should they be? They have no common history, no long established ‘local’ where they can go any time and be sure to encounter a friendly face or two.

All of this might have  been tolerable if Pat hadn’t lost his job. But he did. And as time drags on and he remains unemployed, it seems that he’s in danger of losing more – much more….

We all agreed that French made effective use of this backdrop. It’s a poignant scenario. Ireland seemed finally to have become a place that could provide jobs and quality of life for its young people. Perhaps they could stop the perpetual outward migration that had characterized the country for so much of its history. But it was not to be, after all. And in a way, what happens to the Spains is a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole of Ireland. Jenny and Pat bought into the dream, but it proved to be an illusion made up of empty promises that would never be fulfilled.

Here’s the first impression gleaned by Detectives Kennedy and Curran:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTER. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.

The houses were too much alike. … [M]ost of the driveways were empty, and not in a way that said everyone was out powering the economy. You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky …

‘Jaysus,’ Richie said … ‘The village of the damned.'”


This was one of the best book discussions I’ve ever attended. The Suspects made many illuminating observations of various aspects of the novel. In my initial litany of complaints, I said that the interviews of witnesses and suspects went on way too long and were tedious and repetitious. In my view, they slowed the plot down to a crawl. (By now, Dear Reader of this blog, you know that I am certainly NOT a person with strong opinions!) But Frances felt that these dialog-intensive passages served to open up the characters’ respective psyches – to allow the reader to, as it were, peer into their very souls.

Marge, for her part, felt that for a police procedural, some of the procedures followed by the officers seemed faulty. She was thinking in particular of the initial scenes inside the Spain residence. I think I agree with her, but I feel as though I read – or rather, listened to – the beginning of the book a long time ago and so cannot be more specific.

We all agreed that there’s some powerful writing in Broken Harbor. I just wish it had been in the service of a more tightly controlled narrative. The hardback clocks in at 450 pages, and I think even those who liked the book better than I did felt that it was too long.
What I’ve written here is at best a partial recap of Tuesday night’s session. What I meant when I said that it was such an outstanding discussion is that the comments were so thoughtful and perceptive that I was  argued, at least to a degree, out of my wholly negative view of the novel. Part of my problem may have been all the accolades that have been heaped on this author. That always causes me to view that person’s work with a degree of skepticism – as in, “Okay, you’re supposed to be so wonderful? Show me!”

Someone voiced the opinion Tuesday night that some authors win too many awards too early in their writing careers. This put me in mind of Louise Penny. I loved her first novel, Still Life, and I thought Bury Your Dead was simply terrific. Trick of the Light I liked a bit less. And A Beautiful Mystery, which I expected to love, I found so inert and turgid that half way through, I had to give up. Like Tana French, Louse Penny is the darling of reviewers. And like Tana French, she writes beautifully. I have every intention of reading her latest Inspector Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In; it has received such glowing notices. I trust I will not be disappointed. Will I read another novel by Tana French? Possibly – but not definitely.

A final word about our leader, Susan. This was a long and involved novel. In fact, at the start of our meeting, Susan remarked that she hadn’t remembered it being as long as it was. Well, there’s nothing like having to lead a discussion to remind you of the length and complexity of your chosen novel. I experienced the same sinking sensation when I first set about preparing for the Cop To Corpse discussion that I led in July. We had a good laugh over Susan’s wry observation, but the fact is, she did an outstanding job, demonstrating impressive mastery of this complex material.


  1. Angie Boyter said,

    Roberta, I know Kay does not agree with my evaluation, but do not be too optimistic about the newest Louise Penny. The big huge denouement about the police corruption was so incredibly implausible that I just sat agape for several minutes. I was truly disappointed. (although I LOVED The Beautiful Mystery. I would have expected that you, as a music lover, would have been enchanted by it! ) But please read the Penny before Monday, so we can discuss it!

  2. southernfrances said,

    Isn’t it interesting how a writer appeals to one and not to another?
    For me Broken Harbor was the most interesting read of the summer, in the mystery genre, that is.
    I found the book’s intent to explore people brought to the edge of chaos by forces that swirl around them, often unknown, or unstoppable, was extraordinary. The writing was often exquisite. French’s background in theater was something I guessed at because she created scenes with telling dialogue so well. Susan confirmed this hunch. The narrative interspersed with scenes of interrogation seemed to me to be mini plays within the storyline were gut wrenching methods of mind bouncing off mind, revealing as much about the interrogators as the suspect.

    Exploring mental illness and how it is just a razor edge away from sanity for anyone, if 100% sanity is ever possible, is fascinating. What drives a person to despair? How does ones childhood shape the adult? Is there ever an end to it or does it sit there ready to devour if poked by life events? How do these things affect family and society? Is mental illness genetic? What is the toll if left unattended? What is our responsibility one to the other and how does morality co- exist amidst abject despair and chaos? Are legal systems enough to define and contain the sweeping effects of evil or dis-ease upon the human spirit? Is life black and white or shades gray? Fascinating questions. It was fascinating, yet, often painful, yet always enlightening, wandering through the minds of French’s characters. I seemed to come away with the thought that there are no easy answers.

    French deftly explores through complex characters basic assumptions people and/or society carry about life. The story explores how shattered hopes and habits of mind that keep one functioning can fail, destroying all around them when it happens. How do people/societies deal with the forces that lurk about us in the ephemeral walls of our “reality”? How do the actions of unscrupulous capitalists impact the lives of “rule following” regular folk? Are they morally accountable?
    The social commentary in Broken Harbor is relevant to what is happening to real people, real families, all over the world today. French’s social commentary and warning is a message to be heeded.

    I liked and sympathized with Kennedy, Dina, and Ritchie. Initially the thing that pulled me in to the book, before I realized how profound it was, was the unique master/apprentice relationship between Ritchie. French’s book twists and turns to became a study of people painfully learning about life, learning a job, learning about self. She uses the reversal of teacher/student roles setting each character us for us to discover as they discover themselves and each other. Clever. The effects characters have upon each other and the dynamic of those effects leading to consequences are fascinating. Oops, said it again! Channeling Spock here! How coping mechanisms work or fail is a thread as well. Sadly, the children, innocents, suffer most at the folly or cupidity of adults. The study of Chaos vs Control is another thread that slithers through the story. One is never sure which is which… and Truth is most elusive. French uses a light hand at symbolism yet it is there and I was so taken by the profound messages this story ultimately offered up. Can you tell I really got into this book? It reminded me of the social commentary of Sjowall and Wahloo. They used a ten brief books to eloquently, often humorously, to deliver their social message. French used one rather long book to deliver hers. Once drawn in I could not turn away. For me the pages flew by.

    Thanks to Susan for getting me into Tana French’s world. A couple of her earlier books are on my TBR shelf. I will read them now. Susan did a terrific job.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Wow, Frances! Thank you so much for putting all your thoughts down here, as always so cogently expressed.

      One of the great things about Usual Suspects is our ability to agree to disagree and not having it affect our friendships & regard for one another.

      • southernfrances said,

        Absolutely, Roberta. I think the Usual Suspects is a safe and exceedingly adept place where we can hone our minds and learn many things. Frankly, I believe having meaningful discussions builds respect and regard. Thank you all for that. What a gift to give dear friends.

        I can say for sure, our US meeting is the day I look forward to the most each month. I am so glad I found US five or so years ago. Has it been that long??

        Thank you for your beautiful blog. It is so much work, a work of love.

  3. kathy d. said,

    Wow! What a discussion right here. It just added more dimensions to my thinking about this book, which I think was quite an expose of what a real estate boom and bust can do to average people who are pushed to the brink of despair and then over the edge.

    I agree and hadn’t thought too much about the mental illness issue, although it’s clear that it’s there. That’s another social issue, the lack of mental health treatment for those who desperately need it.

    And it’s true. Crises like this are happening to people all over the world and have worsened even since the economic crisis began. Europe is filled with unemployed youth and middle-aged people, and people have lost their homes. There are so many problems in several countries.

    And then there are just poor countries all over the globe where basic needs can’t be met.

    My only comment about Broken Harbor is that it got repetitive to me in the last fifth of the book. It should have been tightened up in editing to eliminate that. Some of it was unnecessary to make the case the book is making. I think 375 pages would have done the job.

    I liked the story as if unfolded. It was intriguing.

    I recommend In the Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place, all well done.

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