Tuesday 20 March 2018

Review: Broken Harbour by Tana French

Hachette Ireland, £13.99


Critics have been fond of saying lately that the Irish novel is too preoccupied with the past.

The books that win prizes are usually set in barely recognisable landscapes in the distant reaches of the 1950s or beyond, they say, where the words 'Celtic' and 'Tiger' have yet to be dreamed of. But what is the present without the past? This is probably a debate for another day, but it raises the point: where is the great Irish novel, post recession?

Broken Harbour may well be it. Young Irish writer Tana French has made an international name for herself with her series of stand-alone psychological crime novels, featuring detectives from Dublin's fictional Murder Squad. Her first two, In the Woods and The Likeness, have been New York Times bestsellers and she has also been the recipient of such prestigious prizes for crime fiction, as the Edgar Award. However, with Broken Harbour, her fourth novel, Tana French will surely cement her name, not only as the queen of Irish crime fiction, but the queen of Irish fiction, full stop. And even if you're someone who isn't a particular fan of the crime genre, this is a very good place to break that bias.

All of French's novels switch narrators from book to book, which is a clever device as there isn't time for narrative ennui to set in. In Broken Harbour, it's the turn of Detective Mick 'Scorcher' Kennedy, who was a minor character in the series' third novel, Faithful Place. Kennedy solves the most murders on the squad, he's a guy who's always utterly in control of a situation, right down to the way he gets out of his car at a crime scene.

But when he gets called out to Broken Harbour, a former seaside resort that featured in his own past, which has now been turned into a semi-finished and since abandoned ghost estate called Brianstown, everything is not as it appears and Kennedy's own demons begin to unpick the seams of his control.

Two children and their father are dead and their mother is in intensive care. Pat and Jenny Spain were paragons of modern Ireland, who wanted for nothing and had the seemingly perfect home and family. But something, somehow, has gone terribly wrong. Kennedy suspects that Pat Spain, a victim of the recession, was the person behind the horrible tragedy, but things just won't add up no matter how hard he tries to piece them together.

French is as much preoccupied with the past as any other Irish novelist, but its effect on the present seems to be what drives her novels. And the pace in this novel is fantastic; Broken Harbour sucks you into its murky depths in the way that any good novel -- crime or otherwise -- should. However, the breadth of characterisation is also astonishing. Scorcher Kennedy wasn't a particularly likeable character in Faithful Place, but once he gets the chance to tell his own story in Broken Harbour, he grabs his chance to shine and it's a testament to French's ability to breathe life into her characters that he became my favourite narrator of her four novels thus far.

This is a writer working at the height of her powers. As always with Tana French, you can expect humour, pathos and well-observed social commentary, but above all, a cracking story that keeps you guessing until the end. And if they're not the components of a great Irish novel, well then, I don't know what are.

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