Posts Tagged ‘Dublin Murder Squad’

Broken-Harbour Tana French

Recipe for a Tana French Dublin Murder Squad novel:

Take an atmospheric and intense setting, such as the last remnant of an ancient forest, a secluded mansion or a half completed housing project abutting the sea; insert a handful of characters with intense and golden relationships; raise the pressure and temperature; remove from the oven when those relationships start to rip slowly and tortuously apart; dust with a subtle hint of the supernatural.

This is the fourth of Tana French’s explorations of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, after In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. I first read The Secret Place and loved it enough to gorge on the rest of the series which I continued to love – although Faithful Place has been a struggle to get into. This entry, however, I think is the strongest in the series so far.

The setting, the characters, the language here are all pitch-perfect: heightened but utterly convincing; rooted in the economic reality of the recession in Ireland but with a poetic lyricism. The Spain family is found slaughtered in their safe and middle class home in a housing project which was abandoned as the investments ran out surrounded by shells of houses and ghosts of what could have been: their children had been smothered; the father, Pat, knifed to death; the mother, Jenny, barely alive. An experienced detective, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy – being offered a chance to reclaim past glory following some vaguely hinted at disaster – is paired with a rookie detective to investigate. As usual with French, the relationship between the detectives and the budding trust and respect between Kennedy and Richie Curran – a mentor-mentee relationship growing into a putative partnership – is a beautiful and tender as the victims’ relationships. Kennedy is not immediately likeable saying such things as

“in this job everything matters, down to the way you open your car door. Long before I say Word One to a witness, or a suspect, he needs to know that Mick Kennedy is in the house and that I’ve got this case by the balls. Some of it is luck—I’ve got height, I’ve got a full head of hair and it’s still ninety-nine percent dark brown, I’ve got decent looks if I say so myself, and all those things help—but I’ve put practice and treadmill time into the rest. I kept up my speed till the last second, braked hard, swung myself and my briefcase out of the car in one smooth move and headed for the house at a swift, efficient pace. Richie would learn to keep up.

But a softer side to him emerges, whether it be consoling Curran in the autopsy or keeping his sister, Dina, whose mental state is simultaneously vulnerable and perceptive, safe or in his own deeply tragic personal history. He is a man who presents a mask to the world and may not know himself where the real face lies beneath it.

In terms of the plot, French keeps up a cracking pace: the advantage of the detective fiction form, perhaps. Pat, the dead father, is initially suspected; a stalker is discovered quickly but the case keeps deepening.

French’s prose, in the lips of different protagonists in each novel, is, as always, beautiful, poised between the lyrical and the real. As he enters the house, Kennedy tells us

that was when I felt it: that needle-fine vibration, starting in my temples and moving down the bones into my eardrums. Some detectives feel it in the backs of their necks, some get it in the hair on their arms—I know one poor sap who gets it in the bladder, which can be inconvenient—but all the good ones feel it somewhere. It gets me in the skull bones. Call it what you want—social deviance, psychological disturbance, the animal within, evil if you believe in that: it’s the thing we spend our lives chasing. All the training in the world won’t give you that warning when it comes close.

And when he sees the harbour, where his own personal tragedy is centred, we are told of the

rounded curve of the bay, neat as the C of your hand; the low hills cupping it at each end; the soft gray sand, the marram grass bending away from the clean wind, the little birds scattered along the waterline. And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled. The weight of what was in the kitchen with us tilted the world, sent the water rocking upwards like it was going to come crashing through all that bright glass.

And, finally, when looking into the Spains’ attic, an attic guarded with a thick mesh and holding a vicious bear trap, Kennedy says that

For an instant I thought I saw something move—a shifting and coalescing of the black, a deliberate muscled ripple—but when I blinked, there was only darkness and the flood of cold air.

As well as location and atmosphere, which she manages and manipulates with an exquisite Gothic sensibility, French is very good at insanity here. No spoilers, but the Spains, behind their own affluent and successful mask – which marks them out as snobs to their few neighbours – both disappear into different rabbit holes. And they are both wholly credibly described and experienced by the reader.

This is one of the best detective novels I have ever read. Full stop. It is literary and eloquent but never loses its way as a piece of detective fiction. And its conclusion and final revelation – and the ethical dilemmas explored – are enough to warrant tears. Hauntingly, chillingly beautiful.

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

This is my second Tana French novel, and it was her debut with the Dublin Murder Squad series. And I do enjoy her writing style.  

 We have here, ostensibly, a crime novel. A twelve year old girl, Katy Devlin, is discovered dead on the altar stone at an archeological dig. Detective Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are dispatched to investigate.  The usual trickle of evidence (interviews, autopsy, forensics) leads to the perpetrator. There is a further complication: the site where Katy Devlin is discovered is the same place that, twenty years earlier, Ryan and his two best friends disappeared. Only Ryan was recovered, with blood on his shoes and no memory of what had happened to him. 

The novel dips into both cases and they butt against each other. At times, the two cases seem utterly unconnected, save by coincidence; at other times, there’s the suspicion that there may be a direct causal connection. 

What sets French apart from other police procedurals for me, having read a sum total of two of her books – which may not make it a reliable observation – is the intensity of the relationships she creates. Ryan and Maddox’ relationship has a similar intensity to those of the girls at the boarding school in The Secret Place. Somewhere between an incredibly intense brother-sister relationship and lovers. Which, when put like that, sounds rather uncomfortable if not unhealthy! They work together day-in day-out, share food on most nights, a bedroom on occasion, secrets, intimacies and confidences. Each shares an utter confidence in the other and would probably work to exclude everyone else. At times, they came across as beautifully tender together; sometimes we shared the good humour of their bickering. Often, they came across as very immature – acting closer to 13 than 30 but that may reflect more on my stuffiness than anything else – and, to be honest, annoying and not always wholly convincing. The relationship which was growing between Detectives Conway and Moran in The Secret Place was more credible. 

I also struggled to find Ryan a credible police officer: he was clearly incompetent. He should never have tried to – nor in the age of both physical and digital fingerprints, been able to – disguise his background from the police. A victim, witness, or possibly a suspect, in one case, should not be investigating a second case where his main suspect was also suspected in his own abduction. As a narrator though, I quite enjoyed his lack of reliability. 

Another key marker of French’s work seems to be the supernatural, the wildness lurking behind our tame, rational and safe world. Again, for me I love that. Again, it was very apparent in The Secret Place and much less so here (possibly a result of stronger editorial control over a debut novel) but there are occasional hints of something ancient and other stalking the woods. 

Personally, I’d have liked a little more of that side of the story. 

With regard to the resolution, I found the identity and motive of the killer (or killers to avoid spoilers) just a little convenient. And the final outcome … well I’ll leave it up to you to read and decide whether justice was served and whether that appealed. For me, the clear-cut re-assertion of order and justice at the conclusion of typical crime novels is a little too neat at times. So I quite enjoyed the conclusion.