The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 10, 2012

Phyllis Seesengood: Writing shines in new psychological thriller

By Phyllis Seesengood
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — “Broken Harbor” by Tana French is the fourth entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series.

French’s pattern has been to use a minor character from the previous book in the series as the main character in her next book. Detective Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy played a minor but memorable role as a pompous detective and obnoxious nemesis of Frank Mackey in “Faithful Place,” French’s last novel. Detective Kennedy is the central figure and narrative voice of “Broken Harbor.”

The novel is set in the midst of an Irish economic collapse in a half-built real estate subdivision in the seaside village of Brianstown (formerly Broken Harbor). Brianstown bears scant resemblance to the glitzy version of the town pictured in sales brochures.

The top detective of the Dublin Murder Squad, Detective Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie, are dispatched to the Spain home in Broken Harbor where they find a grisly scene. In this half-finished ghost town, a family of four has been viciously attacked.

The children are found dead upstairs. Patrick, the father, has been stabbed to death, and Patrick’s wife, Jenny, is barely alive with multiple stab wounds. A horrible nightmare descended on a family that appeared to be living the modern dream in their new home.

Further examination of the house reveals large holes in the walls, baby monitor video cameras pointing to the holes, a large trap set in the attic and files missing from the family’s computer in an otherwise immaculate house. Jenny had told her sister that she was certain that there had been an intruder in the house despite their security system and no signs of forced entry.

Patrick’s apparent obsession with trying to catch something -- animal or human -- seemed to have taken a toll on the family.

Kennedy and Richie begin the door-to-door questioning of a few neighbors who remain in the desolate neighborhood. At first they suspect Patrick of the murders -- he lost his job and the family was facing the loss of their home.

Kennedy and Richie begin to have doubts about what at first seems like a cut-and-dried case -- their premise being that Patrick kills his family and then himself over their massive debt problems.

Broken Harbor brings back bad memories for Kennedy, whose family used it as a summer vacation spot when he was a child. A tragedy involving his mother and his sister Dina struck the family the last summer they spent at Broken Harbor.

The tragic event had a profound effect on Dina, who has been mentally unbalanced since that incident. We see a slightly softer side of Kennedy, who is working on the top murder investigation of his career. The unstable Dina shows up and he is torn between caring for Dina and his job.

Tana French’s psychological thriller is a chiller. Her style of writing is brilliant. She takes you to the scene, makes you feel the dampness and cold, the isolation and atmosphere of Broken Harbor.

She keeps you on edge. Nothing is as it seems in this novel. French combines a riveting “CSI”-type murder investigation of a monstrous crime with the focus on complicated and intense characters. She delves into their psyche, discovering what makes them tick.

The twists and turns provide plenty of suspense and make for a fast-paced reading experience despite the book’s 400-plus pages, and the audio version’s 20 hours.

Phyllis Seesengood is technical services librarian for the Joplin Public Library.