Khanh the Killjoy

A spectacular reread of one of my favorite mystery authors

Broken Harbor  - Tana French
At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.

“The village of the damned.”

Every master of horror knows that true fear does not originate from a basement, fear crawls up through your spine through the emptiness of a vast, vacant room. Fear comes from isolation, and isolation happens even when you are not physically alone. That is what this book does so well. I never knew that a book---a mystery, not even a horror---could inspire so much tension within me. I never knew a book could create such an atmosphere of claustrophobia.

I wish I could quote entire pages from this book. The writing is just so spectacular.

I truly think Tana French is one of the best crime authors I have ever read---more than that, her skill with the written word is extraordinary. I have been a fan of all her books, and three out of the four books that she has ever written have made it into my "all time favorite" list. Some authors just have an absolute command of the genre. I cannot sing my praises for her loudly enough. I have yet to review the first or second book in the series, because like many of my favorite words of praise feels utterly incompetent whenever I try to express my love for the books that I admire so much.

Here's my first attempt at convincing you to read this book.

If there is a way to make murder beautiful, Tana French has the task in hand. I do not mean that she glorifies violence and death in any way, more that she writes about it so well, be it the psychological implications of it for all the people involved, to the gut-wrenching details of the murder as the case unfolds.

The writing is beautiful, not purple prosy in the least. It is intensely descriptive, deeply evocative, while maintaining the utmost sparsity in words. The writing may be poetic, but rest assured that this is a crime novel. There is a time and place for language redolent with meaning, and it does not encroach upon the investigation. The details of the crime scene, the interrogation of the witnesses, the analysis of the crime itself are expertly written, without any excessive romanticization the use of language. People talk like real people. People answer like real people. The poetic language is restricted to moments of personal introspection, no more. Language is used to its utmost effectiveness within this book. Everything remains in its place.

The Summary: There has been a murder in Broken Harbour, an estate (a planned community) in Ireland. Broken Harbour was once planned out to be a grand place, a community for families. It was supposed to be a rolling success.

But things don't always go as planned. Things fall apart. As does the real estate market.

Broken Harbour may have been started, but it will never be finished. Halfway through the building of the community, money ran out. The real estate market collapsed. What remains is the skeletons of a community, sparsely inhabited by desperate families who are trying to make the best of their isolation.

Broken Harbour is a ghost town, inhabited by ghosts. Haunted by the sea, haunted by dreams of what it could have been.

“That place was creepy. Those hills, I always felt like they were staring at me, like something crawling on my neck, I kept wanting to—” She smacked the back of her neck, a vicious reflexive slap that made me flinch. “And the noise, Jesus Christ. The sea, the wind, the gulls, all these weird noises that you could never figure out what they were… I had nightmares practically every night that some sea monster thing stuck its tentacles in the caravan window and started strangling me. I bet you anything someone died building that shitty estate, like the Titanic.”

Detective Kennedy has been called out to a case in Broken Harbour. A murder. A dead father downstairs, splattered in blood. A mother, barely clinging onto life. And then there are the dead children. Little Jack and Emma.

You would almost have listened to hear him breathing, except something in his face told you. He had the secret calm that only dead children have, paper-thin eyelids sealed tight as unborn babies’, as if when the world goes killer they turn inwards and backwards, back to that first safe place.

As the case unfolds, secrets come out. There are cracks everywhere. Cracks within an ideal marriage. Cracks within the foundation of their lives, the desperation that comes with the onset of financial instability.

It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror. You could almost catch the stench of fear, dank as rotting seaweed, coming up from the dark space at the back of the closet where the Spains had kept their monsters locked down.

And then there are the cracks in the wall. The actual, physical cracks in the wall. A hole clearly made by man, smashed in by a hammer. The claws in the wall, so big that they looked like they had been caused by a jaguar. The things, the creatures that are tormenting the family living there. Something that would cause the inhabitants to lose their mind, to seek help online, posting to an internet forum trying to find out what is going on in the attic. Something that has driven an ordinary man, a loving husband, a devoted father, to gradually lose his mind.

Look you pack of wankers I am NOT A FUCKING TROLL OK???? I know you spend all your time on this board but I actually have a fucking LIFE, if I was going to waste my time messing w someones head it wouldnt be you lot of losers, just trying to deal w WHAT IS IN MY ATTIC + if you useless twats cant help me w that then you can FUCK OFF.

The Characters: This book is psychologically wracking, emotionally wrenching, it gave me a tremendous amount of apprehension. This is what a crime novel should be. Detective Kennedy has personality. He is not imperfect, he is a grown ass man, one who is damned good at his job, and it shows. He is a good man, he is not perfect. He makes wrong judgments sometimes. This is an enormously straining case, it is a huge murder that has the media up in storms. It is Detective Kennedy's ass on the line if he screws it up. He is under an enormous amount of strain. I found him to be an exceptionally believable, sympathetic, unflinching character. He has a job to do, and damned if he doesn't do it well.

“Murder is nature. Hadn’t you noticed that? People maiming each other, raping each other, killing each other, doing all the stuff that animals do: that’s nature in action. Nature is the devil I’m fighting, chum. Nature is my worst enemy. If it isn’t yours, then you’re in the wrong fucking gig.”

In any good crime novel, everyone needs to be realistic. You will not be disappointed by the character development in this book, from the smallest character to the mains, everyone feels real.

The Psychological Tension: More than anything else, this book builds up the feeling of anxiety so well. I said that this book filled me with claustrophobia, and I mean it. Tension is everywhere, whether it's the ghost town that is Broken Harbour itself, to the mystery gradually unfolding, or the cracks that emerge in the picture-perfect family. The tension gets to the detective himself, as Kennedy finds himself on tenterhooks throughout the case.

I sat on the edge of the bed, pressing circles into my palm with the barrel of the gun and wishing for something I could shoot, listening to the waves sigh like some great sleeping animal and trying to remember turning the strip light on.

The mystery of the attic, the unfolding of the crime fills me with chills. Broken Harbour leaves me wanting to seek the comfort of my warm bed, and the arms of someone who will tell me that everything will be all right, somehow.

In that moment I thought of Broken Harbor: of my summer haven, awash with the curves of water and the loops of seabirds and the long falls of silver-gold light through sweet air; of muck and craters and raw-edged walls where human beings had beat their retreat. For the first time in my life, I saw the place for what it was: lethal, shaped and honed for destruction as expertly as the trap lurking in the Spains’ attic.