When a book advertises itself as a police procedural and a psychological thriller, you can assume that you will be taken, step by step, through an investigation of a crime and an exploration of a criminal mind. Who-done-it? is not displaced by aberrant psychology, but the latter often provides a focus for analysis, sometimes ghoulish. The novelist can give access to the psychology of the criminal in many ways: revelation by the unnamed perpetrator interleaved in the narrative, a series of letters, diary entries, or direct interior monologue. Tanya French in her acclaimed, Broken Harbour, reverses the focus of the psychology. Her first person narrator, Detective Michael Kennedy, unravels the knotted workings of his consciousness as he methodically (and at times mistakenly) works out the sequence of events that has led to murder. In some sense, the motivation of the murderer, while clearly developed, is not at all as convincing or as interesting as that of the protagonist,.
I must say that I listened to the book, which is an experience that deserves its own comment. Accepting that, the skill of the reader, an Irish actor called Stephen Hogan, made the urgency of Kennedy’s repressions a function of skillful intonation and pacing. He created a commanding voice, convincing in his anguished dealing with demons. In a way, Kennedy’s pain over his mother’s suicide and his sister’s bi-polar strains outweigh his methodical but halting accumulation of evidence. True, he shares with so many noir detectives the obligatory failed marriage, troubling relationships with his family, and a work driven intensity that shatters his mental and physical health, but the character is in no sense stock or hackneyed.
The characterization involved in his relationship with his junior partner is complex, and ultimately tragic. French also manages to convey the obsessions that push Kennedy into the brutal interrogation techniques that she has him deploy. Most disconcerting is his direct address to his audience in what amount to self-definition. Kennedy wears many masks.
There is no end of suspense in the story. French is particularly successful in limiting the information we receive about the crime and the testimony of the witnesses. Spot-the-Killer becomes a proper collaborative act, reader and detective, working through the clues. Of course, the narrative is conducted with hindsight; Kennedy signals wrong turns or deceptions in the gathering of information and so undercuts any self-congratulation in the apparently easy solution to the mystery of the murders.
The novel’s success is also a function of French’s uncanny ability to create a sense of place; the ghostly and sinister setting in an abandoned housing estate along the Irish Sea anchors pervasive loss – of hope, of promise and of the ties of family. The Celtic Tiger roared once and mauled in its passing a generation who thought they were doing everything right. When good intention and bad credit left them unemployed and hopeless, in Auden’s words, “the crack in the tea cup opens, A lane to the land of the dead.”
The book is in no way pretentious, but it offers an autopsy not only of the bodies of the victims but also of Irish society. The Emerald Isle in this novelist’s vision offers no green valleys and welcoming pubs. Foreclosure notices, tacky, jerry-built houses, and internet fueled isolation are the factors that lead to despairing murder.