Six years ago, Tana French had zero books. Today she has four (five if you count The Secret Place, set for publication in 2014) and they are for the most part pretty awesome. Set in Dublin and surrounding neighborhoods, each of French’s novels tracks a high-profile homicide and its investigation by a member/members of the Dublin Murder Squad, a parade of gruff yet nuanced detectives with personal backgrounds that range from the tragic to the merely unfortunate (we’re talking everything from missing/murdered childhood best friends to suicidal moms).
In Broken Harbor, which I feel compelled to admit I finished a few weeks ago at the beach (I’m running behind, okay? DON’T JUDGE ME) the case in question is a triple homicide: Patrick Spain and his two young children are found murdered in their home in a once up-and-coming (or once aspiring-to-up-and-come) beachfront-ish housing development. Wife/mom Jenny Spain barely survives the attack, and is laid up at the emergency room recovering as Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy begins investigating the case. Of course, per the aforementioned personal background requisite, Scorcher has his own history with Broken Harbor (the presciently sad name of the housing development) and so must contend with his own emotional roller coaster as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the murder.
As a genre, I find crime fiction generally underrated. People who “don’t read crime novels” tend to write them off entirely, despite the precedent set by classics like In Cold Blood. But if you’re not generally a fan of crime novels (of the pulp fiction/easy read variety) then Tana French is the author for you. The Dublin Murder Squad is, indeed, a murder squad, and so French’s books are (fairly) mostly spent on the investigation of murders. And yet – her writing feels just as literary as any novel whose focal point isn’t a homicide, and her character development is so on point that I sometimes daydream idly of the Irish detectives as though they were real people, or at least real enough to guest-star on an episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Perhaps also worth noting for the crime novel non-enthusiasts: Although French focuses on a recurring group of police officers, it’s 94% unnecessary to read her books in order: A periphery detective in one will become the main character in the next, and references to past plots are infrequent, cursory, and not necessary to understand the current happenings. At the same time, if you’re a Tana French virgin, start with In the Woods, her first novel. Just because it’s great.
In a world that has produced approximately 743 iterations of CSI, it takes something special to create a dense, compelling literary novel that manages to surprise well into the 400th page. But if I were to write a blurb on the back of a Tana French novel, that’s exactly what I’d write.
TITLE: Broken Harbor
AUTHOR: Tana French
PAGES: 464 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: In the Woods, The Likeness
SORTA LIKE: In the Woods, The Likeness
FIRST LINE: “Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case.”