Published by Viking on July 24, 2012
A family of four, attacked in their Broken Harbor home. The parents stabbed, the children suffocated. The Murder Squad assignment goes to veteran Dublin detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, partnered with rookie detective Richie Curran. Oddities at the crime scene include unexplained holes in the walls, a plethora of baby monitors, and a large animal trap in the attic. Before the novel's midpoint, it seems that a meticulous investigation has solved the crime, but life isn't that easy for Scorcher. The second half is strange and a little creepy (in a good way). While Broken Harbor works as a whodunit, it shines as a psychological thriller, an intense examination of the internal makeup not just of a murderer, but of murder suspects and the detectives who try to understand them.
In the universe of police procedurals, Broken Harbor stands apart. Everything about the novel feels authentic, from the detailed descriptions of evidence collection and blood splatter analysis to the subtle interaction of the characters. What seems tedious in similar novels is tense and immediate in Broken Harbor. Tana French keeps the story simmering in the first half, before slowly turning it up to a full boil. The smooth partnership that develops between Scorcher and Richie risks coming undone as Richie points out inconvenient problems with the airtight case Scorcher believes they've developed against their prime suspect.
Scorcher is opinionated and his opinions are far from politically correct. At the same time, he has a realistic view of crime and its victims. He views compassion as a liability that impedes dispassionate investigation. He has the same opinion of children ("they turn you soft"). His life is complicated by a sister who is about a half step removed from psychosis -- a more original character than the brooding wife or bitter ex-wife found in most police procedurals. His childhood is dominated by a melodramatic incident that at least serves to explain his brusque personality.
Scorcher's opinions make him interesting but his differences of opinion with Richie make the novel work. Scorcher thinks he has life all figured out, believes he understands how the world works, but Richie brings a different, conflicting perspective. Richie, unlike Scorcher, feels compassion for both victims and suspects, a difference that leads to a fascinating argument about right and wrong in the context of the case they are investigating.
In fact, apart from the curiosity the story arouses concerning whatever was going on in the attic and who the murderer might be, the evolving relationship between Scorcher and Richie is the key to the novel's success. Most of the novel's tension derives from their quarreling about the killer's identity, and the tension escalates late in the story when their lives become a tangled mess. It's not often that a thriller writer manages to combine an intriguing plot with strong, fully-textured characters, but French pulled it off.
French turns some nice phrases (a woman means to give Scorcher "an imposing stare but came off looking like an electrocuted pug dog"), but her eloquent prose is never so showy as to distract from the plot. The story maintains a steady but unhurried pace, reflecting an investigation that is urgent but careful. The ending is sad but satisfying -- very satisfying. In short, for fans of thrillers that derive their entertainment value from human drama rather than explosions and shootouts, Broken Harbor is a winner.