Mid-20th-century mystery master Ross MacDonald is credited with moving hard-boiled crime off the mean streets of American cities and smack into the suburbs. In MacDonald's mythical California town of Santa Teresa, modeled on Santa Barbara, evil noses its way into gated communities, schools and shopping centers that have been built expressly to escape the dirt and danger of the city. I don't know if mystery novelist Tana French is a fan of MacDonald's — in interviews, she credits Golden Age Scottish mystery writer Josephine Tey for inspiration, as well as newer champs like Dennis Lehane — but French's latest novel, Broken Harbor, is set in the kind of suburban wasteland that MacDonald made a career out of excavating. The development here may be outside of Dublin, rather than on the California coast, but the same odor of high-priced dreams gone rotten with damp rises off both MacDonald's work and French's moody and ingenious tale.
Broken Harbor is French's fourth novel in what's called her "Dublin Murder Squad" series; if you haven't read her yet, don't be mislead by that label. French's psychologically rich novels are so much more satisfying than your standard issue police procedural. Each of her novels focuses on one detective in the Murder Squad. You certainly don't have to read the books in order, but if you do, the bonus is that you come to know characters inside and out, and, consequently, realize just how wobbly our knowledge of anybody's "true" nature is. The central detective in Broken Harbor is Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who came off in Faithful Place, the previous novel in this series, as an arrogant control freak. Here, we gradually learn the painful origins of Scorcher's rage for order.
When this novel opens, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie Curran, are summoned to a multiple homicide at a house in an upscale housing development. This is Scorcher's description of that initial visit:
"At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTER. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.
The houses were too much alike. ... [M]ost of the driveways were empty, and not in a way that said everyone was out powering the economy. You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky ...
'Jaysus,' Richie said ... 'The village of the damned.'"
Our detectives discover that inside one of the very few occupied houses on Ocean View, almost all the members of a young family have been murdered — a family that, from the pristine look of things, "tried to get everything right." But, on closer examination, there are eerie touches to the decor: holes in the walls and ceilings, buckled flooring, baby monitors scattered obsessively all over the house. Outside the back windows of the kitchen, Scorcher sees nothing but "skeleton houses staring in ... like famine animals circled around the warmth of a fire."
As those descriptions demonstrate, French brilliantly evokes the isolation of a Gothic landscape out of the Brontes and transposes it to a luxury suburban development gone bust. The cause, of course, is Ireland's economic free fall — the Celtic Tiger turned needy cub — and, like all superior detective fiction, French's novels are as much social criticism as they are whodunit. The family murdered inside that house answered the siren call to the suburbs at precisely the wrong moment in Ireland's history.
Broken Harbor gets a lot more deliciously complicated and chaotic before any illusion of order is restored. The construction of the houses in that blasted development may be shoddy, but not so French's plot and characters. They're as sound and neatly fitting as a coffin lid.