Thursday, December 20, 2018

Listened to a book: "Broken Harbor" by Tana French

Listened to a Book: Broken Harbor by Tana French, 2012, Wisconsin Digital Library download.

The fourth of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. There is a definite pattern to each book. The protagonist is a screwed down and serious cop with some past traumatic experiences as a child or teenager. The cops go against everything they were trained or experienced in work so that they act self-destructively during the investigation. They willingly or unknowingly blind themselves to a clear solution because they cannot help but view the current crime and people through the filter of their own past.


Scorcher Kennedy is a bit of a hotshot murder investigator. He is a very "by the books" fella and he has a high clearance rate for his murder cases. Scorcher gets assigned big name cases that hit the press. His latest is a call that sends him to the edge of Dublin (Which I initially typed at 'Budlin') to an unfinished housing development by the sea. Formerly called Broken Harbor the newly named Brianstown is a mix of abandoned construction and shoddily completed single family homes. The estate was in progress and partially populated when the booming Celtic Tiger economy went bust. Of the entire estate only a few homes were completed and still inhabited.

Scorcher brings along newbie detective Richie Curran who is only recently promoted from the uniform division. They arrive to a fresh crime scene with one dead and bloody father and his two smothered young children. The wife was found barely alive with multiple stabs and slashes and evacuated to the hospital.

There is no immediate evidence of a break-in or intruder. The ME says the dead people were killed around 3AM. Most evidence points to a domestic murder-suicide attempt. But, the weapon is completely missing. And there are strange holes busted through the drywall at various parts of the home with video baby monitors aimed at the holes and the attic access. That's kinda odd.

When the cops search the area they find a "sniper's nest" in the abandoned construction behind the victim's home that looks directly into that home's backyard windows. The nest has a sleeping bag, binoculars, and food. Someone had been surveilling - or creeping - the dead family.

Things move on in standard police procedural fashion. Clues don't match up. Dead ends take time. Witnesses don't want to talk. Family members of the victim's and neighbors interfere in police interviews. The crime scene evidence is inconclusive.

OK, that's all standard. So what matters is the characters. Scorcher is a divorced cop with two sisters, a depressed father, and a dead mother who killed herself by walking into the same damn sea off newly named Brianstown. Scorcher and family used to take summertime caravan vacations in Brianstown. Those vacations were the only times his severely depressed mother would be okay. Until their last vacation when she woke in the middle of the night, took the youngest sibling, and walked alone into the ocean. Youngest sibling survived, was found hiding in the sand dunes, and has never spoke about the experience.

After his mother's suicide Scorcher and one sister have been in charge of keeping the family together. Their father falls apart and just watches television and the second surviving sister has developed mental health issues - the same kind as the mother. Scorcher does not want to go back to Broken Harbor/Brianstown and being there messes him up. Scorcher tells the story first person and cannot accept that the surviving victim - the mother - may have murdered her family. Instead, he focuses hard on the guy who was watching them. The guy was an old friend and his behavior does put him smack into a plausible theory of the crime.  That plausible theory does not have much evidence and comes with a obviously false confession.

French is one of those writers who tells a good tale but is also very perceptive about people. Her characters are peppered with details and behaviors. The first person narrations are not unreliable, they are just unaware or unseeing of what is in front of them. So, let's list recap French style things that have been in the four books I've heard.

  • Family trauma.
  • More importantly - childhood or adolescent trauma of the narrator. Dead parents are in three novels.
  • Narrators who deny that their own emotions and history are driving their motivations. 
  • Narrators will acknowledge their own poor behavior and decision making in the past narration (or whatever it is called) but at-the-time they reason away their actions.
  • Narrators are who inherently lonely. 
    • One narrator left a alcoholic and dysfunctional family to leave on his own and thought hit girlfriend left him because of his family. He does not make relationships.
    • One narrator was the sole survivor of a group abduction where the other two children were never seen again. He was sent to boarding school and lost all memory of time before the abduction.
    • This narrator lived in constant worry for his mother's life and he and his sister took over for the mentally absent father and a mentally ill younger sister.
    • One narrator was orphaned in a car wreck where she was the sole survivor and left in the wreck - with her dead parents - for several hours before discovery. Raised by a distant and overwhelmed aunt and uncle.

1. I presume that French is pretty smart.

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