Sunday, August 05, 2012

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

The fourth book of the Dublin Murder Squad series, this book follows French's M.O.--select a secondary character from the previous book, and feature him/her; and use a murder investigation to document the psychological unraveling of that character.

In her brilliant debut novel In The Woods, French gave us the double mystery of what happened to Rob Ryan, as he tries to solve a murder with his partner Cassie Maddox. The current murder takes place in the area where Rob lived as a child, where he was found traumatized and bloody, where his two best friends disappeared and were never found. The Likeness gave us Cassie Maddox going undercover to impersonate a woman who was found dead, trying to solve that murder by recreating the dead woman's life and then living it. Faithful Place took Cassie's boss Frank Mackey, and force him to confront the fact that the woman he planned to elope with stood him up. Except she didn't. (Yeah, spoiler. Technically. There is no way Tana French wasn't going to twist that plot up.)

Now we have Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who I don't remember at all from Faithful Place. He's a rules guy, straight and narrow, which we learn over the course of the book is his way of dealing with the chaos of his life. It's almost talismanic, the way he counts on rules to keep him safe. Of course, over the course of a French book, the hero is going to find out that what he counts on to make sense of the world isn't going to work when placed in the pressure cooker of a murder investigation.

This one is hard, because there are kids. Two young kids, maybe 6 and 4, smothered in their beds, their parents stabbed in the kitchen downstairs. Against the odds, the mother may survive. Scorcher has a rookie partner, Richie Curran: he likes having rookies for partners, because they allow him more control over the investigation. He also has a past in this location--Broken Harbor was where his family would camp for two weeks at the end of each summer until the summer his mother walked into the water.

Twenty some years later, it's been renamed "Brianstown" by the developers who planned a glamorous multi-purpose, all-inclusive community until the market collapsed in 2008 and the left, leaving most of the estate unfinished and uninhabited. Only four families remained on the property, prisoners of a housing market where they owed more than the houses were worth, the developers cut corners and can't be located. And now the multiple murders of the Spains, Pat and Jenny and their two kids, haunt the eerie location.

Part of the pathos of the Spains' deaths is that they obviously were people who "tried." The house was beautifully furnished and maintained, they themselves were lovely, they seemed to be doing everything they were supposed to. So why were there holes cut into the walls all over the house? Why were there baby monitors scattered around?

As in her other three books, French is less interested in "whodunnit" or even "whydunnit" as teasing out the slow psychological disintegration that makes the unthinkable something that someone can think--and can actually do. What forces make decent people stop following the rules for civilized behavior and cross their own lines?

For Scorcher, it's the accumulation of pressures. Not only does he have this creepy case, which would be bad enough, he's also got the echoes of his own traumatic loss that resonate throughout the case. Plus he's got a younger sister who has an unspecified "madness" who shows up and demands his attention. In the four days covered by the book, he gets only a few hours of sleep, and he becomes increasingly disoriented as the pressures build. He needs to lean ever harder on his fundamental belief that if he toes the line, follows the rules, everything will turn out right.

But the Spains disprove that belief, because they did everything "right," they invested deeply into the way people are "supposed" to live. They met and married young, they adored each other, they had two beautiful children. Pat had a prestigious job that earned enough that Jenny could stay home with the children. They drove the right cars, had the right parties, wore the right clothes, invested in home ownership so they could get onto "the property ladder" because kids need a house and a yard to play in. Jenny made herself into the perfect housewife, even switching out scented candles with the seasons. Then the economy collapsed, Pat lost his job and couldn't find another one, and they ended up dead.

By my estimate, French uses the first two thirds of the book to establish the set up. We follow the police procedures as they try to make sense of the Spain puzzle. We get the slow buildup of threat--the way the house was beginning to collapse from its shoddy construction is a metaphor for Scorcher's life and the Irish economy. Shaky foundations can't be corrected by scented candles. But Scorcher can't confront the shaky foundation of his own life--he doesn't dare to. He has to believe that his younger sister's mental condition was caused by their mother's suicide. He needs to believe in cause and effect to keep faith in his own sanity, and so he begins to identify with Pat Spain, the man who played by the rules. So Scorcher resists the evidence that would implicate Pat as the murderer, and insists on pinning the deaths on a loner, Conor, who had loved Jenny since they were teens. Conor had his own personal financial crisis, and had taken to hiding in an empty building on the estate where he could watch Pat and Jenny enact the kind of perfect life he dreamed of for himself. Early on, he is arrested and then he confesses to the murders.

Even as he celebrates the solve, Scorcher can't stop questioning. There are too many loose ends, and anyway his partner doesn't think Conor did it. Curran wants to keep investigating Pat as the killer, and the pressure he puts on Scorcher isn't helping. Why are there holes in the walls, anyway? Who wiped the browser history from the computer and why? Why did the killer use a kitchen knife rather than bringing his own weapon? Scorcher begins to deviate from his rules--instead of accepting the simplest explanation, he spins a baroque fantasia about Conor launching a campaign to drive Pat insane, involving remote control mp3 players and speakers run into the walls of the house. Scorcher doesn't quite see that Curran is beginning to pity him, worry for him, and that compassion ruins everybody.

Because, of course, it wasn't Conor who killed the Spains, and it wasn't Pat either. It was Jenny. Jenny who caved into the psychological pressure of watching her husband become unmoored. Pat became convinced that there was an animal living in the attic, and he began posting at various websites trying to get some advice. And because this is the internet, as well as a French novel, the responses are indeterminate. As the months go by, Pat stops searching for work and slowly falls into his own obsession. He becomes convinced that his own worth as a husband and father is inextricably bound up in capturing this animal. Not boarding up the access hole in the attic, but capturing it. First he wants to protect his family, but as the weeks go by with no physical evidence of the animal, he needs to demonstrate to Jenny that it is real. He needs to show her that he is fighting a real wild animal, and as he hears it moving in the walls, he cuts holes and sets up video baby monitors hoping to catch sight of it. Obviously he has moved away from protecting his family--if this animal is in the walls, now it can get out at reach the family.

But Pat can't see that. He has become completely absorbed in this one-on-one battle with the wilderness, exemplified by this animal. Soon he moves into territory that would frighten me to death if I were Jenny. He buys a leg trap and sets it up in the attic. He buys live bait--a mouse from a pet store that he sticks to a glue trap and then places in the attic with the trap door open. His plan is to capture the animal in this enormous trap and watch it as it dies. This is where Jenny should take the kids and move to her sister's house, honestly. Pat is completely divorced from family life, chasing this animal and staying up all night watching the monitors and haunting internet chat rooms. Although they have almost no money left, he starts buying electronic equipment to capture this animal.

The final straw comes when Emma comes home with a picture of her house, and she has drawn a large black animal with glowing eyes in a tree in the yard. Jenny does not believe in this animal, and while she has indulged her husband's weird hobby, now he has tainted the children with it, and she no longer has any emotional reserves left. She snaps, and the mantra she has is "we have to get out of here." So she goes upstairs and smothers the children. She then goes into the kitchen, where Pat has stuck his own hand into one of the holes he's cut into the walls, using himself as live bait. In his other hand, he has a large kitchen knife. Jenny takes the knife and begins to stab Pat. They struggle, and although she is physically outmatched, she is determined and she gets lucky and kills him. However, she's exhausted, and she can't finish the job on herself. This is when Conor rushes in--he's seen the struggle from his hide-out, and he's too late to save his friend. Jenny doesn't want to live, and she asks him to finish her off. There is time pressure, you see--she wants to join her family before they move on without her.

He loves her, he loves Pat, and so he tries. But he's not ruthless enough, and so she survives. It is Conor who also tries to save Pat's posthumous reputation by wiping the computer history. His final act is to confess to the murders, to save Jenny the horror of realize what she has done.

Richie Curran has also traveled a morally ambiguous road. He knows that there is nothing the justice system can do to Jenny that is worse than her having to live with the deaths of her family.She is "already writing the note." At the first chance, she will finish the job and kill herself. Scorcher won't allow that--he's got his own issues with suicide, and he's determined to arrest her and convict her, in the hopes that she will get medical treatment and can come out the other end with something to live for. Richie wants to let her go, let her kill herself.

This is an interesting debate to have, as it completely reversed the "Golden Age" detective novel approach. In particular, there is a Dorothy Sayers novel where Lord Peter Wimsey asks the murderer to "do the right thing" to spare his wife and children the horror of being revealed as a murderer. The man walks into traffic and dies--and the clear authorial stance is that this was the Right Thing to Do. There is some nonsense wiht a piece of evidence--one of Jenny's fingernails and a thread from her daughter's pillow turned up in Conor's apartment. Curran found it, but didn't turn it in as he debated with himself the "right thing to do." He doesn't share Scorcher's fervent believe in the proper operation of the system, and he thinks that it might be better to let Pat be blamed for the deaths, and leave Jenny free to take her own life.

Of course, we already know that Scorcher has over-identified with Pat, and he simply cannot allow Pat to be thought of as a murderer--even through the man is dead and really, what would it matter to him? And this is where it all unravels. Because Curran got the evidence tainted, and that was enough to bust him back into uniform. Harsh and a great loss, since Curran was a very very good detective, very good at figuring out what happened. However, he was not a good murder cop, because he was not willing to play his role in the larger system. He wanted to act on his own recognizance, his own belief as to the "right" thing to do. You really can't have that or the system collapses.

So now Scorcher has to manufacture his own evidence, in order to put the case back on teh right path. He has to enlist Jenny's sister in the play of "discovering" a piece of Jenny's jewelry and "remembering" she had picked it up at the crime scene. And this is the destruction of Scorcher's career, because now he knows how easy it is to cross those lines, and he can't trust himself not to cross them again.

French is really up to more than merely writing a well-crafted detective story, and I kept sensing parallels to her break-out In The Woods, most powerfully the use of the unseen animal. In the first book, the young Rob Ryan was found frozen against a tree, his fingers digging into the bark. There was blood in his shoes, that soaked into his socks, and four tears in his shirt but no marks on his skin. There is some hint that perhaps an animal may have made the scratches, and that animal may have killed his friends, but the solution is never spelled out. Similarly, in Broken Harbor there is the unseen animal that Pat is chasing, there are even sets of scratch marks on the beams in the attic, but no corresponding animal tracks or scat.  They are both traumatized by something nobody else can see. They have both engaged in a life-and-death battle with the unseen and lost.

What can we make of this? To be honest, my memory of In The Woods is pretty spotty, and I find I didn't blog any of these books when I read them. But there is something edging around the procedurals, something that is entirely the opposite of the nature of a detective novel. There is wildness and disorder, and while the police bag and tag and assemble the facts, there is a spirit that can't be contained in the sterile procedures of forensics. I suspect that some of this is truly metaphorical--that these men stand as a last defense of order in the face of chaos, and their bespoke suits and natty ties are a means of rebuking the wildness of things with claws that scratch. I also think there is an element of wordplay here. Were the Spains killed by an outsider? No, their destruction came from "within their own walls." Similarly, In The Woods forced Rob Ryan to excavate his own forgotten past as he investigated a murder on an archeological site. That's almost straight past literary construction and right back to being literally obvious.

What makes killers strike? What is going on inside their heads that they can lose touch with civilization to such a degree?  Pat lost his family when he began to ignore them and obsess over "beating" this animal that only he could see. What led him to that level of madness? Would it have happened if he hadn't lost his job? Probably not. So once he lost the ability to protect his family financially, he had to protect them physically--but there was no solid enemy he could confront. It was a creature of smoke and mirrors.

There is a rot at the heart of both books, a corruption of the surrounding systems. It's the politicians and land developers who stand to make fortunes from land speculation and bribes when an expressway is planned. The past has to get out of the way of the future, as the archeological site is going to be obliterated by the new road, and no one will authorize moving the road to protect their history, because there is too much money at stake. Similarly, in Broken Harbor, the land developers sold a promise that they did not deliver, and they disappeared with the money. There is something venal and greedy at the heart of both these books that preys on the unwitting people who wander into its path. This could be what the elusive animals refer to as well.

Rob Ryan never understands what happened in his past. Scorcher Kennedy never looks at the video recordings to see if there ever was an animal at the Spains. I'm not entirely sure what Franch means by these undocumented animals, but she definitely means something.

I completely recommend the entire series of books. There is a lot going on in each of them, and I suspect there is a lot going on between them. Right now, I'm not smart enough to fully recognize what all that is.

1 comment:

Deemer said...

I really hope Tana French, after the release of her next book, which will follow Frank's partner from "A Faithful Place" will tie up the loose ends with Rob. I know that since he has his trust issues, a relationship with Cassie was never going to thrive, but I feel like Cassie and Rob have more to their story than what is stated at the end of "In The Woods" and "The Likeness". I mean comeon, Cassie went to England to abort Rob's baby. Cassie and Sam just do not seem right. ALSO, even more so than a relationship, I wish French would touch on the crime when Rob was little. Yes, I realize that all cases in life do not get solved,but I hope an exception is made here. I mean there is so much evidence to support that perhaps ROB was the killer (He was bigger than them, etc.). If the audience buys that Rob is simply suffering from Survivior's Guilt, There is also evidence to suggest that perhaps a wild animal killed Jamie and Peter (the Claw marks, etc.). Please Tana, PLEASE, do not let Rob/Cassie's story end. Whether they end up solving their issues and confronting their demons or not, there is so much to be gained from all of the fans! Please!