Note: Jim and I both read this book. We agree for the most part about it, but had a few minor differences.
For me, even though I didn’t like the characters in this book as much as I have liked them in French’s other books, and even though I thought some tighter editing would have helped, it was still difficult not to fall under the spell of French’s haunting (even vaguely Gothic) murder mystery.
Broken Harbor, now called Brianstown, is a half-empty development project that reifies Ireland’s 2008–2012 banking and real estate speculation meltdown. Pat and Jenny Spain, the 29-year old parents of two young children, bought into the whole get-rich-effortlessly dream that destroyed so many like them on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in Ireland. Pat described their purchase of a house beyond their means as a leg up on “the property ladder” and “a brilliant investment.” But when the bubble burst, it wasn’t only the finances of the Spains that were destroyed, but their lives. The whole country went insane, and them along with it. As the book begins, Dublin Detective Sergeant Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and his rookie partner Richie Curran are called to the scene of the grisly remains of three out of four of the Spain family, in their broken-down house in Broken Harbor.
Scorcher is a control freak, with the not-so-ironic (as it turns out) burden of having a younger sister Dina who is totally out of control. He also has bad associations with Broken Harbor: Scorcher spent every summer until his fifteenth year at this former small beach village where the working class could go on holiday in rented trailers by the Irish Sea. But when he was fifteen, his mother, mentally unbalanced to begin with, purposefully walked into the sea and never came out. Twenty-seven years later, the family is still feeling the repercussions.
Dina, now 33, was only six then and is still quite childlike when she isn’t acting downright batty. Scorcher, 42, functions better than Dina on the surface, but is pompous, rigid, and resists emotional attachments. Control – over himself and his environment – is essential to him, as is finding out the reason when a death has occurred:
“The day we stop asking why, the day we decide that it’s acceptable for the answer to a severed life to be Just because, is the day we step away from that line across the cave entrance and invite the wild to come howling in.”
Broken Harbor, with “the curves of water and the loops of seabirds” frightens Scorcher:
“We need straight lines to keep us safe, we need walls; we build solid concrete boxes, signposts, packed skylines, because we need them.”
Scorcher and Richie quickly make an arrest, but it all seems too easy. And they haven’t yet found out a motive, so they keep searching. But before long, the real truth of what happened comes out, and comes between the two partners. The case could be destroyed along with all else that has been lost.
Discussion: French loses all subtlety in her stack of metaphors intended to let us know what the housing crash was like for the Irish. A relentless animal predator, all teeth and claws, stalks in the background of this story, as the author endeavors to make her point about the vicious greed that ruined the lives of so many in Ireland. Even the title of the book: “broken harbor “ rather than “safe harbor” pounds in the theme in case we miss it. But the author shines as usual in her depiction of the complexity of the characters. The two primary detectives are multilayered in surprising ways. The Spains, while victims, are not totally innocent; they shared in the greed that devastated so many, and moreover they shared in the attachment to superficial values that made a life of expensive appearances more important than one grounded in reality.
Impressions by Jill: I had difficulty wanting to spend time with Scorcher Kennedy. French made him overbearing and turgid on purpose; she wanted us to learn what made him that way, and perhaps get us to change our evaluation of him as we did so. But it took many pages before I had enough sympathy for him to like him. Also, I couldn’t stand Scorcher’s sister Dina. Yes, she was supposed to be crazy, but even finding out more about what made her that way didn’t increase my desire to have her turn up in the story.
Impressions by Jim: Jill is much too hard on poor Scorcher. I found him to be honest, dedicated, and reliable from the first. In fact, were he not so honest, dedicated, and reliable, the denouement would lack punch. Although at first he seems willing to accept an easy answer to the case, his rookie partner motivates him to seek the truth about the murders. Thereafter, he proves to be a darned good detective. And as for Dina, she and even her craziness turn out to be essential to the plot and to Scorcher’s ultimate fate.
Having said all those good things about the book, I must admit that I felt it should have been 75-100 pages shorter.
Jill: This is probably my least favorite French book, which doesn’t mean at all that I didn’t like it. French is so outstanding with dialogue and character studies, it’s hard to deny her appeal even when the character she gets you to study is one you’d rather not know!
Jim: I agree that French has an excellent ear for Irish. I also felt she did a good job at providing an accurate portrayal of the financial crisis in Ireland. [For a fuller appreciation of the intensity and enormity of the debacle, I recommend the nonfiction account, Boomerang, by Michael Lewis.] Back to French’s book, I liked it more than Jill did because I felt a stronger affinity to the characters.
Published by Viking, 2012