Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Broken Harbor by Tana French

In Broken Harbor, by Tana French, Detective Michael Kennedy and his rookie partner investigate the murder of a family. Was the crime committed by a stranger? Or was it domestic violence? As she does in all her books, French handles the story of the murder and subsequent investigation with great skill and suspense. It’s the rest of the book that I’m not as sure about.

I’ve read two other books by French: The Likeness, which I loved, and Faithful Place, which I didn’t finish. Like these other books, Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and features one of the detectives from the Dublin murder squad. I like the way French does this, setting all her novels within one police department but rotating the cops in charge of the investigation so that each book has a different protagonist. Some characters show up in more than one novel but others don’t. It’s a clever device that unifies her stories while keeping them fresh. It also lets you read them in any order.

My problems with Broken Harbor were the same ones I had with Faithful Place – both these books are overly long and digressive. In addition to crime fiction, French seems to want to write social commentary. This isn’t a new thing in crime fiction, where lots of writers use the genre to highlight issues such as poverty, domestic violence, racism, and class inequality. My complaint is more that French overdoes it. It’s one thing to seed an interesting story with astute observations about societal breakdown, for example, but French just goes on and on. Her issue of choice is the collapse of the Irish economy. While she does eventually manage to tie this topic into the mystery itself, she still spends way too much time on it, to the detriment of the forward motion of the mystery.

So why did I finish Broken Harbor when I couldn’t finish Faithful Place? I think because I listened to the audiobook version of Broken Harbor. I definitely experience a book differently when I listen to it vs. when I read it. Am I a less critical, more patient listener than I am reader? I’m not sure.

Here’s another thought (added later): In some ways French’s books have more in common with the recent spate of noir-ish television dramas than they have with traditional mysteries, especially the shows that originate in the UK and Scandinavia. I’m thinking here about examples such as The Fall, Broadchurch, and The Killing; all of these are relatively slow moving in the plot resolution department, but rich in detail about society and families. Even French’s approach of featuring a murder squad rather than a single detective feels more like a TV series with an ensemble cast than it does a traditional mystery series. But readers and viewers have different expectations about pacing, and some narrative devices work well in one arena but not in the other. I’ve just given myself a lot to think about here, including the fact that by listening to the audiobook version of this, I had a kind of hybrid experience.

(Book 1, 2015)


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