Broken Harbor Is the Whole Enchilada


“If you put energy into thinking about how much the fall would hurt, you’re already halfway down.”

In my husband’s family, there is a small but vocal contingent who embrace all things Irish … shamrocks, anything green, stepping dancing, whiskey, the Old Sod itself, St. Patrick’s Day … you get the idea. For them, Ireland is an idealized place of humorous drunks, cold mist and scolding nuns. It’s pleasant to imagine the other side of the “pond” as the land of the Quiet Man, chock full of simple people living simple lives.

Only it doesn’t exist.

Broken Harbor by Tana French takes place in the real Ireland, a land drowning in a painful recession where thousands were canned overnight, and the “building boom” exploded, leaving half-built ruins in its wake. This gritty thriller takes place mostly in one of those half-built ruins, where suburban lanes curve past hulking shells of houses abandoned in the aftermath of the crash and the occasional “finished” house where unlucky families are stuck until they can come up with the money to move elsewhere. The hero/protagonist is Mick Kennedy, an Irish detective and psychologically wounded warrior who is assigned to investigate the murder of a family living in this stark post-modern landscape.

Life as a homicide detective has worn Mick down, but he is a good cop, and he believes in what he does: “…but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first thing we ever did, where we started turning into humans was draw a line across the cave door and say: ‘Wild stay out.'”

The murder scene itself is a fascinating puzzle, and there’s lots to chew over. I had all sorts of theories about what happened. The house where the bodies are found is a professionally decorated confection, but there’s evidence of a happy family life … photos of beaming faces, kids’ drawings taped to walls, grocery lists pinned on the fridge. But someone had been punching holes in the walls and a dozen baby monitors are set up in the attic. In an abandoned house nearby, a peeping Tom watches the family through binoculars.

The father and two cute kids are dead, the mother is barely hanging on to life, and the press is demanding answers. Detective Mick Kennedy is tasked with finding them … fast. He has his own troubles, including a manic-depressive sister, memories of his mother who died not far from the development, and a “green” partner who just joined the homicide division. The effect is a three-dimensional detective who I was rooting for as I stayed up way past my bedtime because I couldn’t stop reading.

That doesn’t happen very often to me anymore, and when the killer is revealed, you will be surprised. Hopefully, like me, you will believe a few drowsy mornings worth it. And I promise that it will make complete sense (one of my pet peeves). But if that’s not enough, it’s peppered with Irish slang and swear-words, such as this gem: “Probably he was thinking I was the boring bollix I was.” or “I don’t care if the guy was skint; self-respect is free.”

Not only was the story a page turner, it was beautifully written. If the quotes you’ve read so far haven’t convinced you, how about this:

“The smell of the sea swept over the wall and in through the empty window-hole, wide and wild with a million intoxicating secrets. I don’t trust that smell. It hooks us somewhere deeper than reason or civilization, in the fragments of our cells that rocked in oceans before we had minds and it pulls till we follow mindlessly as rutting animals.”


Read this book. Just be sure to start on a night when you don’t need to sleep because it will be impossible to put it down.

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