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

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. Brian Joseph
    September 16, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    This is a great description of this book and it’s interesting aspects Emma.

    As I have been wanting to read some mysteries and detective fiction both your commentary and Guy’s commentary on this book make me think that this might be good place to begin. My wife also enjoys this kind of book and I will recommend it to her.

    Detectives with complicated private lives do make this kind of story extra interesting! This plot aspect very much adds to the appeal for me. Of course there is a long history of this in both books and movies.

    Like

    • September 16, 2012 at 10:23 pm

      It’s a great book; one of those crime fiction novels that go beyond the case and prove that this genre is a lot better than what some think.

      There are many places to begin with crime fiction. Guy could probably give you better recommendations but I guess your wife has ideas too if she’s used to reading that genre.

      Like

  2. September 16, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Like you, Emma, I really enjoyed the character of the detective. He was both very real and very refreshing. I too wanted to know who’d killed the Spains, but I keyed in very early to the description of the house, so for me, I guessed at least some of the stuff that had happened.

    Great photo, btw, and it certainly fits the atmosphere of this terrific novel which isn’t just about crime. It’s also about the wide spectrum of abnormal human behaviour–a rich field to mine.

    Like

    • September 16, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Mike is someone you’d like to meet for a drink, isn’t he? You feel you’re in Ireland when he advise Richie to recite the rosary when he’s in a difficult situation, I don’t remember which one.

      It was an interesting take on the consequences of losing one’s job and how people cope.

      It’s also about the American dream of the perfect suburb with spying neighbours and the need to keep up appearances. There’s a bit of Wisteria Lane in this story, don’t you think? Jenny’s ambition is very American to me. Here, most women work and the white picket fence in the suburbs with a husband providing for the family isn’t part of the collective vision of dream life.

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      • September 17, 2012 at 2:29 am

        I think the shattering of that dream is also what makes this novel so haunting. I’ve known many people who’ve lost their homes in the bust, and it isn’t pretty.

        I see that we both caught the main character’s fixation w/the rules. His adherence to them helps keep him on track, and that’s a change of pace to the usual out-of-control, boozed up copper we see far too much of in crime fiction.

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        • September 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm

          Mike clings to his rules because disorder reminds him of Dina. Order is a guarantee of sanity. He needs to keep everything under control. Dina is the one who loses control.

          You’d like Adamsberg, the commissaire in novels by Fred Vargas.

          Like

  3. September 17, 2012 at 1:36 am

    With books like this I often don’t seem to care who dun it, but it sounds as if there’s a lot more to be interested in with this one. The relationship between Mike and Richie sounds interesting, and between Mike and Dina. Also like the idea of the American dream in suburban Dublin 🙂

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    • September 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      It’s a nice read, there’s more to it than the case.
      It’s the longest book I’ve read in English, when I think of it.

      Like

  4. September 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Danielle reviewed it as well not long ago and she too liked it a great deal. I’m most certainly sold by another enthusiastic review but I have an older Tana French to read still.
    Still, I must admit, I’m very tempte. Especially the detective sounds like a charcater I’d like a lot.

    Like

    • September 17, 2012 at 9:35 pm

      It’s an excellent crime fiction book; well-balanced between the case and other topics.I think you’d like it.

      Like

  5. September 17, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I don’t read a lot of mysteries but this is the second mystery in as many days that’s been recommended to me that focuses in some way on the housing crisis (a book by Michael Connelly is the other). Is that enough to constitute an emerging genre?

    Like

    • September 17, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      Scott, I think crime fiction writers are quicker than literary writers to include what happens in the real world in their books. So, it’s not an emerging genre, it’s just a hot topic at the moment. These writers are strongly connected to the air du temps (no idea of the English version of that expression) and that’s why you find books about the housing crisis. At least in the Anglo-American lit, since here only banks were impacted by the subprime crisis, not individuals.

      Like

  6. September 18, 2012 at 8:22 am

    This sounds like a great read. I love a mystery that deals with other larger issues.

    Another book that dealt with a similar issue is The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus Jr. It’s a great book about the shattering of the American dream.

    Like

    • September 18, 2012 at 8:30 pm

      Hello Nish,

      Thanks for visiting and for the recommendation.

      Like

  7. leroyhunter
    September 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Great piece Emma, and an all-too apt picture to accompany it. The praise from you and Guy makes me think I should give it a try. It sounds like there’s a lot going on in the book.

    You’re right about the 90s/00s explosion of materialism: Ireland got the worst excesses of rampant materialism 10 years after everyone else. The hangover is going to last a lot longer I fear. I just wonder how any rational person – whether operating at the political, corporate or personal level – could have thought the things that were being done were OK. But of course we’re all wise after the event now.

    There are more then a few “Broken Harbours” in Ireland sadly. Some are totally deserted, crumbling in ruin. Some are part-occupied, which must be a nightmare for the poor unlucky sods stuck in them. There was a TV show here last week about “apartment kids” – families growing up in apartments is a new phenomenon in Ireland, where traditionally it’s all been about houses. 2 of the 4 families featured were people who’d moved in the boom into boom-time developments, thinking they’d move on up the ladder in due course, only to be trapped now in essentially worthless properties that are too small, unfinished, deserted, lacking amenities etc.

    Like

    • September 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm

      Don’t you have regulations in the building industry? Here, when a developer starts an real estate program and sells lodgings to households (and not commercial buildings), they need to prove they have two kinds of guarantee: a bank must back them up to reimburse buyers if the estate is never finished and they have to subscribe to an insurance contract so there will be money to achieve the estate if the developer goes bankrupt. It’s a special law to protect consumers who buy a house or an apartment “en l’état futur d’achèvement”, which means its unfinished when they sign the contract.

      Like

  8. leroyhunter
    September 18, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Yeah, those regulations exist, but they were either ignored or have become unenforcable as in many instances the financial institutions providing the guarantees you describe are themselves now insolvent.

    Banks handed money to developers for schemes literally sketched out on the backs of envelopes. Non-existent developments were used as collateral for other non-existent developements. Corrupt local politicians re-zoned land for development without regard to suitability or sustainability. I’ve said it before, but the best description of the type of frenzy that took hold is to be found in Zola. It was madness.

    Like

    • September 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm

      What a mess. And yes, it’s sounds a lot like Artistide Saccard in Zola.

      Like

  9. September 19, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    I noted this when Guy reviewed it, and your billet underlines how interesting it sounds. It’s so refreshing to have a detective who follows procedure and plays by the rules, the maverick is such a cliche.

    With good crime whodunnit is often the least interesting question, in fact whodunnit only really matters in how it casts a reflection on the wider social issues of the book.

    Anyway, definitely on the list. I liked the picture too by the way (well, liked isn’t quite the right word, but hopefully you know what I mean).

    Ee-jit (hard j, as in jog or journey, or indeed journal).

    Like

    • September 19, 2012 at 10:17 pm

      Mike follows the rules but more because it suits him than to respect procedures. I mean that if he didn’t have a personal issue that leads him to follow the rules, I’m not sure he would.

      Let’s say the picture matches the book; it was strange to come across this place while reading the book. It was like seeing in real life what I was just picturing in my mind. I felt uncomfortable aound these houses.

      Thanks for the help on eejit.

      Like

  10. September 20, 2012 at 11:26 am

    The most Irish piece of pronunciation I know is the word film, which always seems to turn into fillum. I’ve done it myself after spending time with family from out there.

    Like

    • September 20, 2012 at 11:33 am

      For us, Irish English was easy to understand. We expected difficulties but we were ok.

      Like

  1. September 20, 2012 at 12:17 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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