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Mystery-thriller book review: 'Broken Harbour'

'Broken Harbour' by Tana French, 'The Crime of Julian Wells' by Thomas H. Cook and 'The Caller' by Karin Fossum provide the chills.

By Scott Martelle

4:34 PM PDT, August 30, 2012

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Summer might be drawing to a close, but don't worry — there's still plenty of time to squeeze in a few more chills provided by new mysteries and thrillers from Karin Fossum, Tana French and Thomas H. Cook.

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The Irish seaside enclave that provides the title of Tana French's latest novel, "Broken Harbour" (Viking: 450 pp., $27.95), has a new name, Brianstown, to go along with all those new post-millennium houses built when Ireland was Europe's economic hot spot. Then the bubble burst, the economy crashed, the developers walked away, and the exurban outpost of upscale homes became a collection of unfinished — and, in most cases, unfinishable — dreams.

Some of the houses are lived in, though the luck of the residents has followed that of the country. Except for the Spain family, whose luck has turned even worse. The two young children lie smothered to death in their rooms on the second floor; downstairs, their father is sprawled dead in his own blood, their stabbed-but-still-breathing mother next to him.

This is the case that falls onto the desk of Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy, the calloused detective with the best solve rate on the Dublin murder squad. It becomes clear early on who the likely killer is, and the revelation some 400 pages later is fairly anticlimactic. But that's OK, because French's focus here is less on the architecture of the crime and subsequent investigation than on the world in which it occurs.

This is a novel about modern life, madness and obsession in a wide range of manifestations. The dead man is Patrick Spain, who lost his job in the financial collapse, then slowly lost his mind as the personal financial pressures built. Scorcher's sister suffers from a debilitating mental illness that sends her scurrying for Scorcher's protective wing during the deepest troughs. One of Scorcher's colleagues is driven by a venal sadism; the key suspect is obsessed with Jenny Spain, the wounded mother, and jealous of the life carved out by Patrick.

And Scorcher himself is dogged by the belief that had he not gone out with his pals during a childhood family camping trip to Broken Harbour, his mentally ill mother wouldn't have walked out into the sea. Dogged too by memories of probing questions by adults, and the cold conversations with schoolmates speculating that beatings by his father had sent his mother to her death — cruel talk that Scorcher ended with fist fights.

"Deep down, I didn't blame them for asking. It looked like plain salacious nosiness, but even then I understood that it was more. They needed to know … Cause and effect isn't a luxury. Take it away and we're left paralyzed, clinging to some raft lurching wild and random on endless black sea. If my mother could go into the water just because, then so could theirs, any night, any minute, so could they. When we can't see a pattern, we fit pieces together until one takes shape. Because we have to…. I knew they were right about this much: things don't happen for no reason. I was the only one in the world who knew that the reason was me."

"Broken Harbour" is French's fourth novel, following up her 2007 debut, "In the Woods," which won an Edgar for best first novel; "The Likeness" in 2008, and "Faithful Place" in 2010. There is powerful, occasionally lyrical writing here, though the novel would be stronger with judicious trimming. The dialogue occasionally drags, and while French paints vivid images of scenes, you get the sense that some of them are unnecessary, the largesse of a loose discipline.

Paradoxically, French's digressions are what make the novel work, as Scorcher follows leads and intuitions as he ruminates on modern life, from the greed that fueled the economic bubble to the shattered dreams when it burst.

"Some people get hit by a tidal wave, dig in their nails and hold on; they stay focused on the positive, keep visualizing the way through until it opens up in front of them," Scorcher thinks as he reviews the Spain family's dismal financial record. "Some lose hold. Broke can lead people to places they would never have imagined."

"Broken Harbour" is a novel, of course, but it's also a headline, both in Ireland and in the U.S. And it's good to see contemporary literature engaging a crisis that has had such an impact on the lives of so many. This is, in fact, what good literature does. It makes us look at our world and perhaps forces us to see what we have chosen to ignore.

— Scott Martelle

Irvine-based writer Martelle is the author of "Detroit: A Biography."