From Tana French, author of the forthcoming novel The Searcher, a New York Times bestselling novel that “proves anew that [Tana French] is one of the most talented crime writers alive” (The Washington Post).
“Required reading for anyone who appreciates tough, unflinching intelligence and ingenious plotting.” —The New York Times
Mick “Scorcherˮ Kennedy is the star of the Dublin Murder Squad. He plays by the books and plays hard, and thatʼs how the biggest case of the year ends up in his hands.
On one of the half-abandoned “luxuryˮ developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children have been murdered. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care. At first, Scorcher thinks itʼs going to be an easy solve, but too many small things canʼt be explained: the half-dozen baby monitors pointed at holes smashed in the Spainsʼ walls, the files erased from the familyʼs computer, the story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder slipping past the houseʼs locks. And this neighborhood—once called Broken Harbor—holds memories for Scorcher and his troubled sister, Dina: childhood memories that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case. You’d be amazed how many of the lads would have run a mile, given the choice—and I had a choice, at least at the start. A couple of them said it to my face: Sooner you than me, man. It didn’t bother me, not for a second. All I felt was sorry for them.
Some of them aren’t wild about the high-profile gigs, the high-stakes ones—too much media crap, they say, and too much fallout if you don’t get a solve. I don’t do that kind of negativity. If you put your energy into thinking about how much the fall would hurt, you’re already halfway down. I focus on the positive, and there’s plenty of positive there: you can pretend you’re above this stuff, but everyone knows the big cases are the ones that bring the big promotions. Give me the headline-grabbers and you can keep your drug-dealer stabbings. If you can’t take the heat, stay in uniform.
Some of the lads can’t handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can’t cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I’ve handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets done. Someone has to do it. If that’s me, then at least it’s getting done right.
Because let’s get another thing clear, while we’re at it: I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place. This year I’m down to second, but the top guy got a run of slam dunks, domestics where the suspect practically slapped the cuffs on his own wrists and served himself up on a plate with applesauce. I pulled the tough ones, the nobody-seen-nothing junkie-on-junkie drudgery, and I still scored. If our superintendent had had one doubt, one single doubt, he could have pulled me off the case any time he wanted. He never did.
Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.
* * *
The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next in the rota, or, if he’s out, to whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendent O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.
I flipped my jacket off the back of my chair and pulled it on. My heartbeat had picked up. It had been a long time, too long, since one of these had come my way. “Don’t go anywhere,” I said to Richie, my partner.
“Oooo,” Quigley called from his desk, mock horrified, shaking a pudgy hand. “Is Scorcher in the shit again? I never thought we’d see the day.”
“Feast your eyes, old son.” I made sure my tie was straight. Quigley was being a little bitch because he was next up in the rota. If he hadn’t been a waste of space, O’Kelly might have let the case go to him.
“What’ve you done?”
“Shagged your sister. I brought my own paper bags.”
The lads snickered, which made Quigley purse up his lips like an old woman. “That’s not funny.”
“Too close to the bone?”
Richie was openmouthed and practically hopping off his chair with curiosity. I flipped my comb out of my pocket and gave it a quick run through my hair. “Am I good?”
“Lick-arse,” Quigley said, through his sulk. I ignored him.
“Yeah,” Richie said. “You’re grand. What . . . ?”
“Don’t go anywhere,” I repeated, and went after O’Kelly.
My second hint: he was up behind his desk, with his hands in his trouser pockets, rolling up and down on the balls of his feet. This case had pumped up his adrenaline enough that he wouldn’t fit in his chair. “You took your time.”
He stayed where he was, sucking his teeth and rereading the call sheet on his desk. “How’s the Mullen file coming along?”
I had spent the last few weeks putting together a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions on one of those tricky drug dealer messes, making sure the little bastard didn’t have a single crack to slime through. Some detectives think their job’s done the second the charges are filed, but I take it personally when one of my catches wriggles off the hook, which they seldom do. “Good to go. Give or take.”
“Could someone else finish it up?”
“Not a problem.”
He nodded and kept reading. O’Kelly likes you to ask—it shows you know who’s boss—and since he is in fact my boss, I have no problem rolling over like a good little doggie when it makes things run more smoothly. “Did something come in, sir?”
“Do you know Brianstown?”
“Haven’t heard of it.”
“Neither had I. It’s one of those new places; up the coast, past Balbriggan. Used to be called Broken Bay, something.”
“Broken Harbor,” I said. “Yeah. I know Broken Harbor.”
“It’s Brianstown now. And by tonight the whole country’ll have heard of it.”
I said, “This is a bad one.”
O’Kelly laid one heavy palm on the call sheet, like he was holding it down. He said, “Husband, wife and two kids, stabbed in their own home. The wife’s headed for hospital; it’s touch and go. The rest are dead.”
We left that for a moment, listening to the small tremors it sent through the air. I said, “How did it come in?”
“The wife’s sister. They talk every morning, but today she couldn’t get through. That got her het up enough that she got in her car and headed out to Brianstown. Car’s in the driveway, lights are on in broad daylight, no one’s answering the door, she rings the uniforms. They break the door down and surprise, surprise.”
“Who’s on scene?”
“Just the uniforms. They took one look and figured they were out of their depth, called it straight in.”
“Beautiful,” I said. There are plenty of morons out there who would have spent hours playing detective and churning the whole case to shit, before they admitted defeat and called in the real thing. It looked like we had lucked into a pair with functioning brains.
“I want you on this. Can you take it?”
“I’d be honored.”
“If you can’t drop everything else, tell me now and I’ll put Flaherty on this one. This takes priority.”
Flaherty is the guy with the slam dunks and the top solve rate. I said, “That won’t be necessary, sir. I can take it.”
“Good,” O’Kelly said, but he didn’t hand over the call sheet. He tilted it to the light, inspecting it and rubbing a thumb along his jawline. “Curran,” he said. “Is he able for this?”
Young Richie had been on the squad all of two weeks. A lot of the lads don’t like training in the new boys, so I do it. If you know your job, you have a responsibility to pass the knowledge on. “He will be,” I said.
“I can stick him somewhere else for a while, give you someone who knows what he’s at.”
“If Curran can’t take the heat, we might as well find out now.” I didn’t want someone who knew what he was at. The bonus of newbie wrangling is that it saves you a load of hassle: all of us who’ve been around a while have our own ways of doing things, and too many cooks etcetera. A rookie, if you know how to handle him, slows you down a lot less than another old hand. I couldn’t afford to waste time playing after-you-no-after-you, not on this one.
“You’d be the lead man, either way.”
“Trust me, sir. Curran can handle it.”
“It’s a risk.”
Rookies spend their first year or so on probation. It’s not official, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. If Richie made a mistake straight out of the gate, in a spotlight this bright, he might as well start clearing out his desk. I said, “He’ll do fine. I’ll make sure he does.”
O’Kelly said, “Not just for Curran. How long since you had a big one?”
His eyes were on me, small and sharp. My last high-profile one went wrong. Not my fault—I got played by someone I thought was a friend, dropped in the shit and left there—but still, people remember. I said, “Almost two years.”
“That’s right. Clear this one, and you’re back on track.”
He left the other half unspoken, something dense and heavy on the desk between us. I said, “I’ll clear it.”
O’Kelly nodded. “That’s what I thought. Keep me posted.” He leaned forward, across the desk, and passed me the call sheet.
“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.”
“Cooper and the Tech Bureau are on their way.” Cooper is the pathologist. “You’ll need manpower; I’ll have the General Unit send you out a bunch of floaters. Six do you, for now?”
“Six sounds good. If I need more, I’ll call in.”
O’Kelly added, as I was leaving, “And for Jesus’ sake do something about Curran’s gear.”
“I had a word last week.”
“Have another. Was that a bloody hoodie he had on him yesterday?”
“I’ve got him out of runners. One step at a time.”
“If he wants to stay on this case, he’d better manage a few giant steps before you hit the scene. The media’ll be all over this like flies on shite. At least make him keep his coat on, cover up his tracksuit or whatever he’s honored us with today.”
“I’ve got a spare tie in my desk. He’ll be fine.” O’Kelly muttered something sour about a pig in a tuxedo.
On my way back to the squad room I skimmed the call sheet: just what O’Kelly had already told me. The victims were Patrick Spain, his wife, Jennifer, and their kids, Emma and Jack. The sister who had called it in was Fiona Rafferty. Under her name the dispatcher had added, in warning capitals, NB: OFFICER ADVISES CALLER IS HYSTERICAL.
* * *
Richie was up out of his seat, bobbing from foot to foot like he had springs in his knees. “What . . . ?”
“Get your gear. We’re going out.”
“I told you,” Quigley said to Richie.
Richie gave him the wide-eyed innocents. “Did you, yeah? Sorry, man, wasn’t paying attention. Other stuff on my mind, know what I mean?”
“I’m trying to do you a favor here, Curran. You can take it or leave it.” Quigley’s wounded look was still on.
I threw my coat on and started checking my briefcase. “Sounds like a fascinating chat you two were having. Care to share?”
“Nothing,” Richie said promptly. “Shooting the breeze.”
“I was just letting young Richie know,” Quigley told me, self-righteously. “Not a good sign, the Super calling you in on your own. Giving you the info behind our Richie’s back. What does that say about where he stands on the squad? I thought he might want to have a little think about that.”
Quigley loves playing Haze the Newbie, just like he loves leaning on suspects one notch too hard; we’ve all done it, but he gets more out of it than most of us do. Usually, though, he has the brains to leave my boys alone. Richie had pissed him off somehow. I said, “He’s going to have plenty to think about, over the next while. He can’t afford to get distracted by pointless crap. Detective Curran, are we good to go?”
“Well,” Quigley said, tucking his chins into each other. “Don’t mind me.”
“I never do, chum.” I slid the tie out of my drawer and into my coat pocket under cover of the desk: no need to give Quigley ammo. “Ready, Detective Curran? Let’s roll.”
“See you ’round,” Quigley said to Richie, not pleasantly, on our way out. Richie blew him a kiss, but I wasn’t supposed to see it, so I didn’t.
It was October, a thick, cold, gray Tuesday morning, sulky and tantrumy as March. I got my favorite silver Beemer out of the car pool—officially it’s first come first served, but in practice no Domestic Violence kid is going to go near a Murder D’s best ride, so the seat stays where I like it and no one throws burger wrappers on the floor. I would have bet I could still navigate to Broken Harbor in my sleep, but this wasn’t the day to find out I was wrong, so I set the GPS. It didn’t know where Broken Harbor was. It wanted to go to Brianstown.
Richie had spent his first two weeks on the squad helping me work up the file on the Mullen case and re-interview the odd witness; this was the first real Murder action he’d seen, and he was practically shooting out of his shoes with excitement. He managed to hold it in till we got moving. Then he burst out with, “Are we on a case?”
“What kind of case?”
“A murder case.” I stopped at a red, pulled out the tie and passed it over. We were in luck: he was wearing a shirt, even if it was a cheapo white thing so thin I could see where his chest hair should have been, and a pair of gray trousers that would have been almost OK if they hadn’t been a full size too big. “Put that on.”
He looked at it like he had never seen one before. “Yeah?”
For a moment I thought I was going to have to pull over and do it for him—the last time he had worn one had probably been for his confirmation—but he managed it in the end, give or take. He tilted the sun-visor mirror to check himself out. “Looking sharp, yeah?”
“Better,” I said. O’Kelly had a point: the tie made bugger-all difference. It was a nice one, maroon silk with a subtle stripe in the weave, but some people can wear the good stuff and some just can’t. Richie is five foot nine on his best day, all elbows and skinny legs and narrow shoulders—he looks about fourteen, although his file says he’s thirty-one—and call me prejudiced, but after one glance I could have told you exactly what kind of neighborhood he comes from. It’s all there: that too-short no-color hair, those sharp features, that springy, restless walk like he’s got one eye out for trouble and the other one out for anything unlocked. On him, the tie just looked nicked.
What People are Saying About This
Ms. French created haunting, damaged characters who have been hit hard by some cataclysm . . . This may sound like a routine police procedural. But like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, this summer’s other dagger-sharp display of mind games, Broken Harbor is something more.”
The fourth book in Tana French’s brilliant, genre-busting series about the (fictitious) Dublin Murder Squad . . . Invoking atmosphere is one of French’s particular gifts, and in this department, Broken Harbor (the name of the town before the developers got hold of it) is a tour de force.”
Reading Group Guide
Pat Spain and his wife, Jenny, always believed that, as long as they played by the rules, things would work out all right. It was with this faith that they fell in love, had their two beautiful children, and took out a 110 percent mortgage to buy their first home—a house in a new, lavishly advertised development on the Irish seacoast in an area freshly re–christened “Brianstown” but once known to all as Broken Harbor. But things do not work out all right. As recession chokes the country, the developers fail to finish the neighborhood, property values plummet, and Pat loses his job.
Then, on an autumn morning, Jenny’s sister discovers the couple in a pool of blood. Pat is dead, and Jenny is nearly so. Upstairs in the children’s rooms awaits a still more crushing horror.
Enter Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, ace Murder Squad detective. Kennedy is quick to realize that the Spain case is a “dream case” and that he is just the man for it. If all goes well, the case will cement his position as top man in his department.
But, as with the Spains themselves, very little goes well. Scorcher is partnered with Richie Curran, a rookie detective with a lot to learn. At the crime scene, nothing adds up. The Spains were so fastidious that they lined up their shampoo bottles, yet the police discover gaping holes bashed in the interior walls of their house. There are no signs of forced entry, which points to an inside job, but everyone swears that Pat and Jenny were the world’s most loving couple.
Then a break comes: a search of a nearby house reveals that a squatter has been keeping the Spains under surveillance. But when the stalker is captured, his story yields only more mysteries. As Jenny fights for life in intensive care, Scorcher hears the clock ticking. He can hold the suspect for only a few days without charging him, and still no answers come.
At the same time, an even deeper enigma is playing itself out in Scorcher’s head. Broken Harbor is, for him, a place laden with nightmarish memories. As he descends further into the tragedy of the Spain family, his investigation drags him ever deeper into his own terrors. And there, making everything worse, is his mentally unstable sister, Dina, who is the last person to let sleeping dogs lie.
Brooding in its reflections on the current Irish economy, keenly insightful into hearts and minds of its characters, Broken Harbor is a finely wrought police procedural, but it is ever so much more. Unflinchingly, it narrates the struggle of a good but tortured man to push back a rising tide of wildness and outrage, both in society and in his own battered spirit. Above all else, Scorcher depends on order and control to keep his world from spinning into chaos. But in Broken Harbor madness lurks around every corner. Just beyond the edge of civility and tidy appearances, a beast crouches, cunning, pitiless, and always ready to strike.
ABOUT TANA FRENCH
Born in Vermont, Tana French had a peripatetic childhood that took her to Ireland, Florence, and Rome, as well as the African nation of Malawi. A resident of Dublin since 1990, she has a degree in Drama and English from Trinity College. Prior to her writing career, she was best known as an actor in a wide variety of theatrical productions in Dublin. Her debut novel, In the Woods, was honored with the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards. She lives in Dublin with her husband and daughter. Broken Harbor is her fourth book.
A CONVERSATION WITH TANA FRENCH
Q. Your books resonate beyond their particular plots and the characters; your fiction comments on the distressed conditions that currently exist in Ireland. How does Broken Harbor express concerns about your adopted country?
I think if you write mystery, you’re going to end up, at some level, focusing on your society’s priorities and tensions and deepest fears. You’re writing about murder, the biggest fear of all—and the way that fear expresses itself is obviously going to be shaped by its time and place. Take the flood of serial–killer books in the 80s and 90s: I figure those were a response to the growing sense of isolation and anonymity in cities, where the threat isn’t your nearest and dearest any more, the way it is in small–town Agatha Christie; it’s some faceless, nameless stranger. So, while Broken Harbor was never intended to be an “issue book” or anything like that, I was writing it in Ireland from 2009 through 2011, and that seeped in.
Ireland is an epic mess. That’s the mildest way I can put it. And it’s my generation, the thirty–somethings, who are taking the brunt of it. Not me and my husband personally, or most of our friends—we were broke actors for most of the boom, so we couldn’t afford to buy a dog kennel in the middle of nowhere, never mind an actual home. That upset me at the time, but it turned out to have a silver lining in the end. Now a solid proportion of our generation are stuck on half–built, half–occupied, abandoned estates with open sewage pits and no street lighting, miles from any friends or family, and many of their houses are falling to pieces. They’re unemployed or being taxed to the point where they can’t pay their mortgages, and no one’s ever going to buy their houses so they can move on. And their belief in a sane world, a world where they have any control over their own lives, has been smashed.
That haunts me. It should never have happened; it didn’t need to happen. And because Ireland is my home and I love it, I get seriously passionate and seriously angry about terrible things that are done to, and by, this country. That ended up shaping the book.
Q. Some of the worst villains in Broken Harbor are invisible and unassailable—not just the animal in the Spains’ attic, but also the financiers and real estate promoters. What do you think about their culpability in the events of Broken Harbor?
Don’t forget the politicians. For reasons made up of a hellish brew of stupidity, cronyism, and corruption, they were right in there with the property developers and the banks, frantically urging my generation to spend ten times our income on unbuilt houses in the middle of nowhere. Our then-Prime Minister said, charmingly, that anyone who didn’t believe the property boom could last forever should kill themselves.
I don’t believe that the people who fell for the hype are innocent victims. They were grown adults, they signed the contracts, no one forced them; there are plenty of people who said no, and they had the choice to do the same. But at the same time. These are people who were trying their absolute best to do everything right. Everything and everyone around them told them that this was the right thing to do, so they did it. And I think it would be ludicrous to say that the people who urged them on are guiltless.
Psychological mystery is a natural place to explore that whole area - the ambiguity of guilt. There are other mysteries where culpability is a straightforward thing: X killed Y because X is a bad person, the end. And they’re wonderfully satisfying and necessary books, because it’s very cathartic to place and contain evil within one person, with the implication that once that person’s in jail, evil has been purged and the world of the book is safe again. But psychological mystery is a lot less at home with the idea of evil being neatly bounded and simple to confine. In psychological mystery, evil is often a facet of a lot of the characters, not just the killer, and the most evil actions don’t necessarily come from the most evil people - and so, while the justice system punishes the evil action, sometimes the truly evil people do in fact walk away, unassailable.
Q. That animal in the attic is one of the strangest touches in your story. It’s a little like the beast in Lord of the Flies. How did you hit upon it as a plot device?
That’s actually where the whole book began! One night a few years ago, I went into the kitchen, and before I could switch the light on, I half–saw something leap out from behind the toaster, zip across the counter and vanish. I jumped about three feet, but I couldn’t find any sign of anything, and my now–husband gave me a dubious look and gently mentioned my overactive imagination. I was a bit miffed, and a bit wary around the kitchen, but it wasn’t a big deal. And a couple of nights later my husband was the one who went into the kitchen, and he turned on the light in time to see a mouse doing a runner down behind the cooker.
We got some traps and a new toaster, I managed not to say “Told you so,” and that was the end of that—except that something stayed in my mind: the frightening sense of dislocation that comes when your inner reality and your outer reality get out of synch; when what you know to be true and what others see aren’t the same thing. I started thinking about what it would be like if the half–seen something had zipped past someone whose home and marriage were already under threat from outside forces; what it would be like if the mouse didn’t show up on Day 3, if this guy went on hearing his home being invaded by an animal that no one else could hear . . . And a couple of years later, that fit together in my mind with what was happening to people around the economic boom and crash—the utter dislocation between the obvious reality and what we were being told, between what people believed and what was happening all around them. Basically, Broken Harbor was written because we had mice.
Q. Your ongoing fascination with flawed heroes with tortured pasts reminds us very strongly of Greek tragedy. Does your experience with staged drama influence your writing of fiction?
I’ve never taken a creative writing course or anything like that; my equivalent, my writing training, was my time as an actor. Just about everything I learned about acting, except maybe “Never take a bite of cake just before your line,” translates to writing.
Here’s one of the things I learned: a character who’s everything he wants to be, and has everything he wants to have, isn’t interesting. Dramatically, that’s the equivalent of watching some guy sit on his sofa eating Doritos and playing Xbox for a couple of hours: yeah, he’s happy, so what? This is going nowhere. What’s interesting is a character who’s struggling towards something high–stakes, and getting held back by obstacles both outside and inside himself.
In a murder mystery, the external stakes are automatically right up there; stakes don’t get much higher than life, death, truth and justice. The internal stakes are the reason why all my narrators have been damaged, whether temporarily or permanently. Most people are, in one way or another; they’re finding ways to deal with that damage, whether by fighting it or assimilating it or suppressing it. And my books are about the cases that force the narrators to come face to face with the damage—’the cases that mean they can’t keep it under wraps and try to work around it any more, they have to confront it and either move past it or be defined by it forever.
Rob Ryan in In the Woods doesn’t manage to move beyond the damage done by his childhood friends’ disappearance; inThe Likeness, Cassie Maddox is traumatized by the events of In the Woods, but through the events of the book she starts to heal; in Faithful Place, Frank Mackey’s whole perception of himself and his life is changed as he finds out the truth about his first love’s disappearance, and he ends up freed, to some extent, from his old scars. And Broken Harbor is about the case that breaks down Scorcher’s belief in an orderly world governed by reason and the law of cause and effect—the belief that’s been holding him together since childhood. Without that prop, he has to find a new and different way to live.
Or, to put it more concisely: when in doubt, mess with your character’s head.
Q. There’s a lot of thoughtful material in Broken Harbor dealing with male friendship, both between Scorcher and Richie and between Pat and Conor. As a woman, did you find it challenging make these relationships come to life on the page?
Friendship has always been hugely important to me. Probably this is obvious from the books—In the Woods and The Likeness both have friendship at their hearts. I think of it as an essential of life, like water; you can be a perfectly happy, fulfilled person without a partner, or without kids, but I’m not sure it can be done without friends. And when friendship or the capacity for friendship is under attack—because of someone’s own internal damage, like in Scorcher’s case, or because of outside pressures, like in Pat and Conor’s—it strikes right at the core of you, just as powerfully and painfully as when romantic love is under attack. If Scorcher and Richie were able to find their way, that last step to a real friendship, this book would end very differently for both of them.
At its heart, friendship is the same crucial thing whether it’s between men or women. The differences lie in the ways it’s expressed—and when you come down to it, those differences depend on who the individual people are, far more than on whether they’re men or women. I stick to focusing on the specific characters, trying to capture the ways their friendships take shape, the small trivial details that show the underlying layers of trust and love much more clearly than any amount of hugs and deep conversation. Whether the characters are men or women is a factor, sure—and luckily I’ve always had plenty of guy friends, so I’ve seen lots of male friendships in action—but it’s not the only factor, or even the most important one.
Q. Some of the childhoods you portray in Broken Harbor are deeply troubling times. What are your thoughts about childhood in general?
I was lucky: I had a happy childhood. But one thing that’s true of every childhood, happy or unhappy, is that it’s incredibly intense. You don’t have room for the levels of ambivalence and complexity that adults can manage; you’re whole–hearted. And you take in everything. I think you spend your first twenty years learning absolutely everything you’re exposed to, and the next ten or twenty years trying to unlearn the bad bits. Whatever’s in a child’s life, the child assumes it’s a universal truth.
Scorcher learned things that children shouldn’t: that the responsibility for the world rests on his shoulders; and that even the tiniest loss of control can lead to chaos. Those have been built into him, and they take their toll.
Q. Your novel is extremely frank in its confrontation of madness and the ways in which mental illness can fracture lives. Why do you think the theme of madness is so especially interesting in a police procedural novel?
That theme wasn’t deliberate. This will sound bizarre, but I didn’t even realize until a few weeks ago, when someone pointed it out to me, that almost every character in the book is mentally unstable, to some degree; that madness permeates the whole book. It’s very weird to realize just how much of a book is written by your subconscious.
I do think the theme of madness is a natural match for a police procedural—not just in criminal terms, but in psychological ones—which is probably why it shows up relatively often. Procedurals are all about order and control. Murder is the ultimate attack on that order, both societally and psychologically, and it’s up to the detectives to fight off the chaos and turn it back into some kind of order so that we have a society we can live in. Madness is the opposite journey—order fragmenting into chaos, the laws of cause and effect breaking down. The clash between those two, and what it does to a detective caught in the middle, is natural territory for a book.
Q. Your characters in Broken Harbor deal with madness—and suspicions of madness—in radically different ways, with different results. Are there lessons to be learned here?
Definitely no lessons to be learned. I don’t do those. I’m in no position to be giving anyone lessons about anything—specially mental illness, since I’ve been lucky enough, touch wood, that it hasn’t played much of a role in my life. When I write a book that touches on something as big as madness (or murder, for that matter), I’m not trying to teach anyone about it—I don’t think that’s my job, and I wouldn’t be qualified if it were. I’m just trying to understand it, even the smallest bit.
I think the theme of madness was basically inevitable when I started writing a book set in a ghost estate. Those ghost estates were created out of Irish national madness; they’re insanity made solid. There was an overwhelming cultural push towards the idea that, as long as you believe something hard enough, it automatically becomes true: if you keep believing that the boom will last forever, then of course it will, and if you doubt that, well then, it’ll be your fault if it all goes wrong! The actual facts were irrelevant and unpatriotic. There was a national–level fracture between reality and perception; perception wasn’t expected to have any link to reality.
Obviously all experience is subjective, to some extent. But when you start believing that your personal perception is all that matters, that outside reality doesn’t need to be taken into account, then you’re taking a huge leap down the path towards madness. Every form of madness, as far as I can tell, is based on that disconnect in some way or other.
One thing I’ve noticed, since someone pointed out to me what this book’s about: the characters who survive with the least psychological damage are probably Richie, Scorcher’s partner; Conor, the man who’s been spying on the Spains from an abandoned house; and Fiona, Jennifer Spain’s sister. I’m not saying they come out unscathed—they definitely don’t—but, at their cores, they retain some kind of wholeness; under all the devastation, they’re still themselves. And those three are the ones who pay most attention to what’s outside themselves. They really listen to other people; they really watch what’s going on around them; they have, or gain, an awareness that other people’s lives are as real as their own, that reality exists outside of them as well as inside. Again, this wasn’t intentional, and it’s not a lesson or anything, but it does fit with the way I see madness: that dangerous dismissal of outside reality.
Q. More than once, the tragic center of your detective plot has fallen upon a question of inadmissible evidence. Do you have anything to say to someone who might read your books and say, “There, you see? Another perfectly provable case ruined by these stupid constitutional safeguards! We’d have more justice without them”?
The fact is that the system is human, and humans are flawed. Because of that, we absolutely need safeguards, to protect innocent people and to protect justice; but inevitably, those very safeguards sometimes go wrong and end up jeopardizing the exact things they’re meant to protect—releasing a killer to kill again, for example. This is one of the many things about detectives that leaves me awestruck: their job is to navigate that Mobius strip, and to try and come as close as possible to justice within it.
Every now and then, the truth and the rules turn into the two halves of a vice grip, squashing the detective and the case between them—and some part of the detective is inevitably going to get crushed. Either he has to stand by and bite his tongue while justice gets thrown out the window, or he has to break the rules that are there for excellent and crucial reasons—and either way, a part of his integrity is sacrificed.
That’s what happens to Scorcher. His whole view of the world gets crushed in that vice–grip by the events of the book. By the end, he’s had to sacrifice his idea of who he is, and of what his life is going to be, in order to hold onto something that will make the world a recognizable, and bearable, place.
I don’t know how detectives do it.
Q. We were a bit surprised that Frank doesn’t come back for a cameo in Broken Harbor. His relationship with Scorcher in your previous book was so heavily charged.
This is one of the things I enjoy about writing linked books with a different narrator each time: you get to explore that subjectivity that I was talking about earlier, how two people can see the same person or event in two completely different lights. Frank sees his relationship with Scorcher as heavily charged—but that’s mainly because, when Scorcher resurfaces in his life, Frank’s just found out that his first love was murdered, and that the narrative that was the basis for his whole adult life isn’t true. He needs an enemy; he needs someone to fight against. Until he finds out who the killer is, Scorcher—partly because he’s so attached to the rules, which really aren’t Frank’s thing—will do nicely.
But Scorcher doesn’t really see Frank the same way. To Scorcher, Frank isn’t particularly important, at least not at this point in his life—because he doesn’t need Frank, either as an enemy or as an ally. He’s already got more than he can cope with on both fronts. Whoever killed the Spains, plus the bits of Scorcher’s past that the murder churns up, adds up to plenty of enemy for anyone, especially someone as focused and single–minded as Scorcher. As far as allies go, he’s got Richie—who may not seem like much of an ally, considering how young and how new he is, but Scorcher’s not used to having allies at all; he’s used to flying solo, and he doesn’t have an easy time wrapping his head around the idea that he’s starting to see Richie as a partner. So there wasn’t really any room for Frank in his world, or in the book.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m partway through my fifth book, which is currently called The Secret Place. The narrator this time is Stephen Moran, Frank’s young sidekick from Faithful Place. Frank’s daughter, Holly, now sixteen, shows up at Stephen’s work with a postcard she found on the noticeboard where girls in her school can post their secrets anonymously —a postcard with a photo of a murdered teenage boy, and the caption “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.”
And this time Frank does come back!
Ghost Estates Ireland after the Bubble: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Tana French
The first time I interviewed Tana French, two weeks before the U.S. release of her debut novel, In the Woods, she was careful to clarify that, although she did have a background as an actress, she was not to be confused with Tana French, the actress who played a nude model chased by a gorilla in the 1962 B-movie The Wild and the Naked (Tana French, the author, was born in 1973). The other Tana French wasn't exactly world famous, but back in the spring of 2007, she was the highest-ranked Tana French in U.S. Google results.
Five years later that B-movie actress is likely explaining to someone that she is not the Dublin-based author of four acclaimed, psychologically incisive literary mysteries. ("Who knows?" says French. "Maybe she's saying, 'Hang, on. I have more sense than to do that for a living.' ") Although Tana French, the author, spent a decade working as a theater actress before taking a break to write her first novel, the novels have long since won out as her day job and become bestsellers. All four take place among the fictional detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, and technically they are all police procedurals: As she says, "Somebody gets killed; somebody else finds out who did it; and along the way, they use the tools available."
But while French writes great murder mysteries (her very first novel won the Edgar Award), her novels hold up equally well as literary fiction and are regularly recognized as such by critics. Part of her strength in constructing believable characters comes, no doubt, from her theatrical training: she has an impeccable and uncanny ear for dialogue; delves deeply into each character's motivation; and choreographs intricate scenes of psychological tension, personal drama, hilarity, and grief. When it comes to creating an original, authentic narrative voice, she's easily one of the most accomplished writers working today.
With each novel, those voices get more astonishing. Rob, who narrated In the Woods, and his partner, Cassie, who narrated the second book, The Likeness, may well have fit right in with French and her scraping-by actor friends at the Dublin pubs where she spent her twenties and early thirties. Each, however, spoke in a voice entirely distinct from the others. (French likes to take a secondary character from one novel and make him or her the narrator of the next.) For her third novel, Faithful Place, she created the character of Frank Mackey, a loner undercover divorced detective in his forties who escapes his dead- end working-class block and manipulative family, only to come back when he realizes his first girlfriend was murdered. That novel obsessively depicted the subtlest markers of class and character, from accents to TVs and trainers.
French's Broken Harbor takes an even bigger risk: Her narrator, Scorcher Kennedy, is the guy who spent the entirety of Faithful Place being mocked by Frank Mackey for being uptight, unimaginative, and worst of all for any character one with whom one plans to spend several hundred pages boring.
But in French's hands, even the boring guy gets his turn. Says Scorcher: "Only teenagers think boring is bad. Adults, grown men and women who've been around the block a few times know that boring is a gift straight from God." The case he's on is a family homicide father and two kids killed; mother barely hanging on in a suburban estate built during the boom years but now, post mortgage crisis, rapidly sliding into a scary no-man's-land or "ghost estate," to use French's evocative term. Like Scorcher himself, Pat and Jenny Spain were the kind of people who "want what they are supposed to want," who do things in the right order and the right way. The novel ends up being a timely, empathetic deeply philosophical morality play on wealth, art, conformity, economics and class; fiction as instructional and probing as any essay. I spoke to Tana French from her home in Dublin. Amy Benfer
The Barnes & Noble Review: Your narrator is Detective Scorcher Kennedy, who spent all of your last novel, Faithful Place, portrayed through the eyes of undercover cop Frank Mackey as an insufferable prig: He spoke entirely in platitudes, he was loathsome, competitive, and small-minded. When I first heard the book was told from his perspective, I found it entirely perverse of you to choose this guy. But then you managed to pull it off. He is that man, and yet you somehow managed to make him somehow sympathetic.
Tana French: Thank, God. I was terrified. In Faithful Place, he's this pompous, up-his-own-arse little git, but that's partly because that's what Frank needs to see. Frank just found out that his first love was murdered. He's looking for an enemy to fight against. Until he finds the person who killed her, Scorcher will do just fine.
I had originally planned to make Stephen Moran, the young upcoming sidekick from Faithful Place, the narrator. But then the more I thought about these ghost estates, the more I realized that the people who are stuck on these ghost estates are the people who followed the rules, and the rules let them down. I thought, Well, that doesn't gel with Stephen. Trying to do your best, to follow the rules, to be what you are supposed to be: That's Scorcher, not Stephen. Even his language, as you said, is based on platitudes. It's structured entirely around the way you are supposed to say things. And so obviously this is his book. And I thought, Oh God. I don't know if I want to spend two years in his head.
BNR: When I used to write on the Nancy Drew mysteries, I would joke about how in those novels, class was often presented as a clue. For example, the poor girl would show up at the fanciest dress shop in town, which Nancy cleverly discerned she couldn't possibly afford, or the disheveled housekeeper did it, or the villains were swarthy in some vaguely ethnic way. It was this very clumsy and often bigoted take on class. But your last two novels Faithful Place and now in Broken Harbor the mysteries themselves seem to rely on a very sophisticated understanding the tics and prejudices and blind spots that go on in every social class.
TF: Ireland is such a young society. The British were the ruling class up until they left about a hundred years ago, and we've been trying to work out what our class hierarchy is ever since. There's a much more secure sense of identity in the working classes. Whereas the middle classes and the upper classes we've got I'm not sure we've got any are struggling for identity, because they didn't really exist in the same way until relatively recently. People are within a few generations of being broke and working-class, so they still kind of struggle for definition.
I think you see that especially in Broken Harbor. You see people who aren't coming from that very securely rooted kind of place where they know who they are and everyone in sight knows who you are and has known who you are for generations. During the boom, people suddenly had money, and that was taken as being the definer of class in a very definite, inarguable way. Therefore, because you were in such need of defining yourself, of finding your place within the social hierarchy, you had to buy as many status indicators as you possibly can. OK, I know where I am; you know where I am. I'm driving this particular SUV, therefore I have this particular identity.
BNR: So that brings us straight to the Spains, members of the striver class, who are found murdered with their two children in their pretty suburban home. It's both funny and tragic that, this novel begins in a falling-down subdivision a place that looks great on the outside but is literally hollow on the inside and will not stand the test of time.
TF: I don't think you get any more symbolic than these places. I don't know if it happened the same way in America, these "ghost estates." During the boom, because of this horrible web of corruption between government and property developers, the developers started building stuff that frankly nobody needed or wanted. Our generation, the thirty-somethings, were the ones who were being told, Look, this is your only chance to get on the property ladder. Property values are skyrocketing. You buy something off the plans, in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely no infrastructure. Well, of course you don't want it. But within five years, it will have doubled in value, and you'll be able to sell it off and buy something in town that you do want, and everything will be wonderful forever.
And then the crash came and the property developers just left. A huge chunk of our generation are stranded there and they can't get out now. How much more symbolic can it get? This thing that was presented as this gateway to a dream is now just disintegrating around them. You get kids joyriding and squatters. They don't have street lights, they don't have proper sewage removal, they're just there in the middle of the chaos that they thought they were avoiding forever.
BNR: Which is ironic, because that's where people moved to have a "safe family home" away from the perceived danger and lawlessness of the cities.
TF: Exactly. That's the whole irony. The ones who moved there are the ones who really wanted to do the right thing. They really wanted to have their nice family life, your picket fence, your 2.4 children, and a Labrador. It's all turning inside out, basically. And Richie [Scorcher's partner] ended up being all right, because he's from an inner-city neighborhood. He actually does know who he is. Whereas the Spains have been uprooted from who and what they are and been stripped bare in the middle of nothing, with no rootedness left.
BNR: There's a certain justice to that. There is an odd sort of inversion between this book and Faithful Place. In that book, when Frank gets out of his working-class neighborhood, he seems to become more confident, and more himself. But what you are saying about Richie, then, is nearly the opposite: Richie is coming from the kind of neighborhood that Frank left behind, yet coming from that neighborhood is what makes someone like Richie more substantial than someone like Scorcher and the Spains, strivers who are always afraid that with one wrong move, their identity can be taken away at any time.
TF: Frank, much as he thought that escaping was his only option, is still defined very much by that neighborhood he got away from. As far as you go, you still carry it with you. You can cut yourself off from it, but you still have the shape of it printed on you. That defines him even as he's fighting against it. But Richie doesn't have that conflicted thing that Frank has. He's got no beef with being working-class and from being from the neighborhood he is from. And the implication is that he's from a worse one than Frank: Rather than being from a working-class neighborhood, he's from a non-working-class neighborhood. Scorcher doesn't trust his own mind and his own instincts to lead him right. He needs guidance from the outside. He needs the rules, he needs a manual. He believes that his own mind is unreliable. Whereas Richie, again, for better or worse, considers his own mind to be his most reliable guidance.
BNR: One of the things that is so exhilarating to see in Broken Harbor is that the return of the intellectual and emotional interplay between squad partners that we haven't seen since Cassie and Rob in In the Woods. In this case, Richie and Scorcher have a cross-age and cross-class romance, and there is not the possibility of them literally romancing each other as Cassie and Rob may have done. But there's many moments when Scorcher gets as swoony as a girl picking out her wedding dress, imagining the two of them, five, ten, fifteen years down the road. It's very funny, given that this is a guy who doesn't want to want anything, and when he does, he wants something very specific: Even women are supposed to look exactly like what women are supposed to look like. He doesn't do quirky. And yet here's Richie, this guy who is from the wrong neighborhood, the wrong accent, the wrong class, and you just stand back and watch as Scorcher falls in love with him....
TF: That's exactly what I was thinking about it as. He's thinking, Well, maybe we can have a future together! He's somehow gone slightly infatuated on a professional level. I do think there's something slightly funny? pathetic? about him fastening on to this thing. I think that's what happens when you spend so much time trying to maintain control. You just can't forever be like that "I am in total control of my life! I am an android! I am a bionic man!" You're going to need a hand sooner or later. And I think that's where Scorcher's head is at with Richie. In some ways, he would be the perfect partner for him. They have very differing takes on things and they balance each other very well.
BNR: You used to hear the phrase "lace curtain Irish." How would that compare to the new "young professional couple in the subdivisions Irish"? It seems like both are accused of putting on airs, or pretending to be better than others.
TF: Both are defined by the idea that you are what others see. The "lace curtain Irish" would say, It doesn't matter if inside everyone is drunk and chaotic and throwing stuff and you don't have a penny to your name, as long as the lace curtains are nice and clean and you go to Sunday Mass and everyone outside the house sees everything in place. That's been a part of Irish society forever.
But the value system on which it's based has changed. "Lace curtain Irish" to me implies that they are Catholic. Going to Mass would be a large part of it, and everything being clean and tidy. Whereas the striver generation like the Spains, the value system is less on Catholicism and more on money and status symbols. So it's not whether you show up for Mass, it's where you went on holiday for your honeymoon. That's become the equivalent indicator of virtue. It's switched from showing up at Mass and having the finest Communion dress on the block to going on holiday and having the right car. But it's very much the same thing. It's that reliance on symbol and surface as indicators of moral value.
BNR: In this book, you contrast between the people who define their moral worth by having the right things and doing things in the right order Scorcher, the Spains and with characters like Jenny Spain's sister, Fiona, a photographer, who wants something a little more complicated. It must make it so much easier to be goal-oriented and thus, to "win," if you know what the hell the goal is. But as the novel makes it clear, it also makes it so much easier to know when you lose.
TF: These are people who, again, have relied on indicators outside themselves. When those indicators all go haywire, they don't have an inner map, because they never had to build one. The Spains did everything right. They followed the formula. They stuck to the manual word for word. And all of the sudden, everything has just fallen all around them.
Whereas someone like Fiona has never had the luxury of believing that she is following a path that is simple and clearly illuminated. When a recession turns up, and everything goes upside down for her, and she's not getting photography work, she has inner touchstones. She can say, OK, I didn't get that exhibition or I didn't get that gig, but I know, because I've spent ages developing my own eye for this, that my recent work is better than my work from two years ago, therefore I know that I am moving somewhere.
It's much easier in good times to want you are supposed to want. I think that's really what defines life: Whether you want what you're supposed to want, or whether you want things you are not supposed to want. In good times, it's much, much easier if you want what you are supposed to want, but in bad times, I really don't think it is.
BNR: So for people like the Spains, to whom material wealth represents morality, even religion, to be unable to afford their previous lifestyle say, losing their SUV represents a moral failure.
TF: Yes. If you can't maintain your financial lifestyle, then you have somehow become tainted, brought down on the moral ranking. I've got this theory that human beings are innately religious; we have a belief system. It doesn't have to be a theist form, necessarily. But we need a belief system, some framework on which to hang our behavior. The influence of the Catholic Church eroded very quickly in Ireland, which I don't think is a bad thing. But it left a vacuum. And people filled that vacuum with a money-based belief system. Money and health. It's not just a health choice: it's somehow a more morally worthy choice to not smoke, not drink, to eat your organic vegetables.
BNR: It's not giving much of the plot away to say that when a family is killed at home, the first suspect is often the father. From early on, readers are asked to consider the possibility that Pat Spain couldn't handle the financial and emotional chaos of being out of work and offed his family. I wrote a piece on these so-called Father Knows Best killings about a decade ago [Note: For readers interested in these kind of killings, Julie Salomon's Facing the Wind is a fascinating nonfiction look at one such case]. As I remember, people who believe to their core that patriarchy and the traditional family are the only way to live can come to believe that their family is actually better off dead than going on living in reduced circumstances.
TF: I've read up on these killings, too, these family annihilator killings. And in these cases, the father is someone who is very used to being in control of everything. When that control goes, he feels like the threat of chaos is so enormous that it's actually worse than death. Whatever it is financial, psychological chaos - - is so much worse that he just prevents it by killing the whole family.
BNR: In their own head, it's seen as a mercy killing. Because who would want to live without the security of a traditional, affluent family?
TF: Oh yes. Totally.
BNR: So the family is God?
TF: Yes, it's very much that. Everything is spiraling toward hell and the best thing you can do is just wipe the slate clean.
BNR: Recently, the American press has been floating the idea that many people with money have less empathy; that money makes people mean. That's also an idea that you introduce in the book. At one point, Fiona, the artist, talks about how bitchy Jenny and her publicist friends are to each other the kind of mean girls that will mock each other for going a few days without topping up their fake tans. When things go down for the Spains, they are hunkered down in this house that literally has glass walls where the neighbors can witness their decline. According to their own belief system, their financial decline is also a moral decline, and they expect to be mocked and judged for it. Do you think there's something to this idea that money makes you mean?
TF: During the boom years, you did get people being very vicious toward each other for not having quite the right status symbols. Again, my friends have always been a whole bunch of broke actors, where you never knew if you would have enough money to pay the phone bill and buy milk. During the boom years, that made us feel a little bit alienated is probably too strong a word, but marginalized. There would be all these news articles about how everybody is doing so wonderfully, the nation is doing so brilliantly, and here's all of us going, "We're not. When you talk about the nation, when you talk about the economy, you clearly don't mean us. We're not mentioned. We don't have any role in the national narrative anymore." It was a very strange time.
BNR: And yet while your earliest narrators Rob from Into the Woods and Cassie from The Likeness seemed like they would have fit right in with you and your broke actor friends, I find it interesting and admirable that you managed to create sympathetic characters out of the kind of people with whom you wouldn't seem to have much in common.
TF: These people, the equivalent of the Spains, were the kind of people who weren't particularly nice to me and my friends during the boom. They explicitly and by implication looked down on us and thought that we were worth less than them because we had less money. But I thought, I can't write these characters with the author's judgment being implied. I can't be going, "Who do you think you are?" or "I think this is shallow" or "I think this is superficial" or "You've got no morals." All of that is irrelevant because for these characters, that's not who they are. No one thinks they are shallow, superficial people with no moral center. They are doing these things for excellent reasons. It's my job to get to that reason and give that reason with all the power and punch I could.
The same applies to Scorcher. In his own mind, Scorcher is desperately killing himself to do things right. I thought, if I can get that, that he's not just this pompous git, that he has a reason for being what he is, and he puts passion into it, just as the Spains put passion into being who they are. Even though it may look as if they are just this wad of fake tan and Hugo Boss, they are putting the same passion and determination into that that Fiona is putting into the struggle of living on small wages and desperately trying to get a photography exhibition up and running. It just comes out differently.
If you are going to be on the artist's side of the fence, your job is to place a bit token in the jar of empathy. You don't get to abdicate that purely because you are dealing with people who in real life you find completely uninteresting. If I was going to write this book and the idea was there; it's not like I had another one it's my job to make sure that these characters had the space to make their argument. And I figured, if they did, if I did that with the respect that it deserves, that with any luck please God and touch wood! Scorcher would not turn out to be an obnoxious person to spend several hundred pages with and the Spains would not turn out to be unsympathetic victims. I have to say I have no clue if it worked.
BNR: Not unlike Fiona, you spent all your twenties and your early thirties just scraping by working as in the theater, then writing your first novel. And yet, you are now the bestselling author of four novels; one does assume that you have had a larger measure of critical and material success than you probably planned for. Do you have any reflection on how it feels to stumble into material success through artistic success, especially having just written a book about people who strive for material success and are more or less ruined by it?
TF: I think it would have been very different if it had happened ten years earlier. I was thirty-three when all this started happening. By then, you have a very clear idea of who you are. It's not like at twenty-three I had written something that became very successful. I think that would have changed my perception of who I was and where I fit into this world. I think I'm always going to think of myself as the same broke actor bouncing along from week to week and hoping there's enough for a few pints. Because even though it's not true anymore, that's who I was during all the time your identity gets shaped. I'm never going to think of myself as "Bestselling writer Tana French," because by the time that happened, my sense of identity was already very much shaped.
BNR: But of course, you once thought acting was your art. Does that transformation feel natural now? Do you miss acting? Are you going to go back to acting in your forties?
TF: I do miss it. It's so social. I'm so used to the idea that you all work together all day, and then you all go to the pub together. And yes, I really miss the stage. I think if I had been a film actor, it might have been quite easy to go to an agent and say, "Look, I can't do a big gig, but can you set me up for something that's maybe five days' work?" But in the theater, there's no such thing. There's maybe four weeks rehearsal, then four weeks on the show. That's two months out of a writing schedule. My publishers get to poke me with sticks if I do something like that.
I love writing. I feel ridiculously lucky that this is what I get to do all day. I love acting, too, but this is the one that was working out. This is the one that not only pays the mortgage but also lets me work every day. With acting, you have to depend on somebody else to decide if you are allowed to work. You can spend weeks and months when you are not acting at all. With this, not only, my God, do I get paid to work every day, but even when I was not, I could still work every day. No one could stop me. I've got a pen, I've got a notebook, I'm good to go. That's a marvelous thing.
July 24, 2012