When Crime Novels Go Literary

7 May

Dublin Castle was the fortified seat of Britis...

I do love a good mystery or crime novel, so it’s always a pleasure to discover new talent in this genre. I first discovered Tana French’s novels in New York City’s Penn Station, where paperbacks were on a “Buy Two, Get One Free” deal.

I quickly sank into French’s first novel, In the Woods, and by the time I arrived at Princeton Junction, I had nearly finished the book.

An Irish writer from Dublin, French focuses on police procedurals, in particular the Dublin Murder Squad. But she approaches the genre with a more sophisticated literary sense.

Her stories aren’t just well-crafted, but intelligently written, with characters that are more complex and less stereotypical.

In her latest novel, Broken Harbor, French sets a triple murder against the backdrop of Ireland’s recession. Key themes explored are the modern-day narcissist and a materialistic culture. She contrasts these societal ills against the selfless love and devotion that family members have (or should have) for each other.

I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never have even crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is sent to investigate the murder of a family in a mostly unfinished luxury development, a victim of the recession. Mick has something to prove – he botched his last murder investigation – and something to hide. Broken Harbor holds painful childhood memories for him. So he has his own demons to contend with, just as he seeks to find the devil that took the lives of a father and his two small children.

Like many during the recession, the father had lost his job and found it difficult to find another. His wife does her best to keep their lives as normal as possible. To an outsider, not much appeared to change with the family. But behind the doors of their pop-up mansion, their lives are in turmoil.

Mick himself is also keeping up appearances; he goes to great lengths to keep his family problems to himself. His youngest sister suffers from mental illness, and her care often falls to him. When he takes this case, his first instinct is to protect her from the memories of what happened to his family at Broken Harbor.

French tells a good crime story, with lots of plot twists and turns, but it’s her ability to raise the genre to a higher plane that has me coming back for more. Broken Harbor won’t be her best novel; I think that’s yet to come, and I’ll keep reading her books until it arrives.

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