Broken Harbour cover

When Francis Mackey and Rosie Daly were about to escape their narrow lives and insupportable families, they met in a pub in Pearse Street, Dublin to go over their plans, and arrange the future they intended to share. This was in 1985, at a time when Ireland had for decades been economically on the ropes. The pub was a haunt of Trinity College students, so there was no risk that anybody they knew might see them there and wonder what they were up to. They relaxed and stayed till closing time. There was no need to leave early to catch the last bus: their homes in the Liberties, a world away, were within easy walking distance. Their homeward journey took them right past Dublin Castle, where the series’s (fictional) Murder Squad is based. Faithful Place (2010) is a tale of two cities.

The cities are superimposed on each other, appearing to occupy the same space. While remaining more or less distinct, though, they leak into each other in unexpected ways. When Rosie doesn’t turn up for their rendezvous, leaving a note which appears to indicate that she has decided to go to England alone, Francis passes through the boundary between the two worlds. Twenty-two years later, Frank is still in Dublin, but it’s not a Dublin to which his parents, brothers and sisters belong.

For the first seven years, he had no contact at all with his family, then he ran into his youngest sibling, Jackie, by chance. and kept in touch with her. As the youngest, Jackie has to some extent been protected from the poison which, as he sees it, infects the rest of the family.

Frank has, of course, been a prominent character in French’s immediately preceding book, The Likeness, which I wrote about in this newsletter last year. In that book he is in charge of the undercover side of a joint operation with the Murder Squad. Jackie, a hairdresser, makes a brief appearance too when she styles Cassie’s hair to make her look more like the murder victim she’s about to impersonate.

Frank learns that the boundary between the two Dublins is more permeable than he had imagined. He’s called back to Faithful Place, where his mother, father and older brother still live, when Rosie’s suitcase (still containing the ferry tickets to Hollyhead that he had bought in 1985) is found hidden in a derelict house where they used to hang out as children. It turns out that Rosie never got away after all: she is buried beneath a concrete slab in the same derelict house.

Not long after the discovery of her body, Frank’s younger brother, Kevin, dies in a fall from the upstairs window of the derelict house. In his pocket is the first page of the note that Rosie had written twenty-two years earlier. It reveals that she hadn’t intended to leave alone without Francis: the note had been meant for her family, not for him, but her killer had presumably taken the first page to hide that fact.

Frank is blindsided by the reaction of his 9-year-old daughter, Holly, when he tells her that his brother has died.

Holly stared at me. “Your brother?” she said, with a high little shake in her voice. “Like my uncle?”
“Yes, baby. Your uncle.
“Which one?”
“Not one of the ones you know. Those are your mammy’s brothers. This was your uncle Kevin. You never met him but I think you two would have liked each other.”
For a second those butane eyes went huge; then Holly’s face crumpled, her head went back and she let out a wild shriek of pure anguish. “Nooooo! No, Mummy, no, Mummy, no …”
The scream dissolved into big, gut-wrenching sobs, and she buried her face in Olivia’s stomach.” (p. 223)

Jackie had been taking Holly to Sunday lunch at her grandparents for the past year, with the approval and cooperation of Frank’s ex-wife, Olivia. So much for the separation between the two cities, the unbridgeable gulf between 2007’s Frank and 1985’s Francis.

Not only is Frank, whose undercover work is founded on deceit, appalled that his daughter has been encouraged to keep him in the dark about an important aspect of her life, he is furious that she has been brought into contact with the family he has been so determined to break with. His father is an embittered, violent alcoholic, his mother, the main victim of her husband’s violence, exercises a bullying control over her adult children. His elder brother, Shay, has for decades done what he can to protect his mother and, where necessary, his younger siblings, but the unrelenting responsibility has left him, too, feeling bitter — and trapped.

Before his death, Kevin had recalled that Shay had locked him and Francis in the dark, terrifying basement of the derelict house for several hours. As Frank remembers it, Kevin must have been just two or three years old at the time. When Frank tackles Shay about this, Shay tells him he did it to protect the two younger boys when their father was on the rampage. There was nowhere else he could put them where they would be safe.

Shay also reminds Frank that the latter had once found their father’s behaviour so intolerable that he had been prepared to kill him. The two brothers had planned the murder and Frank had assured Shay that he was fully committed to the plot. And so he had been — until Rosie told him that she was going to run away to a better life and she wanted to take Frank with her. Without hesitation, Frank had left Shay in the lurch and twenty-two years would pass before the older brother would get another chance to escape.

So, Frank manages to avoid becoming a murderer, but not in a way that shows him in a very creditable light. Any suspicion we might have formed while reading The Likeness that Frank is really quite a nasty piece of work is largely confirmed by this book. You don’t usually expect the children of a spouse-abusing alcoholic to turn out well. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock to find Frank bullying a woman whom he can see has herself been a victim of domestic violence, to get information from her.

The woman is Imelda, a childhood friend of Rosie’s and his who helped Rosie to smuggle her suitcase out of the house without arousing Mr Daly’s suspicions, and was the only other person who knew about Rosie’s plans. It’s clear that Imelda told somebody the secret and that’s how the killer knew where and when to find Rosie as she was about to leave. Imelda has told the Murder Squad detective, “Scorcher” Kennedy, that the person she told was Kevin, who is now dead. Scorcher believes that Kevin killed himself out of guilt. He wants blame Kevin for Rosie’s murder, solving the case without the need for a trial.

Frank knows that Imelda is lying, and thinks that the person she really told (indirectly, via her mother) was his own father. He interrogates Imelda brutally (after having given Scorcher his word that he won’t go near her again), to get the truth out of her.

I knew the look on her face, the slack jaw, the blind black eyes stretched too wide to blink. I had seen it on my ma a hundred times, in the second when she knew she was about to get hit. I didn’t care. The thought of the back of my hand cracking across Imelda’s mouth almost choked me with how badly I wanted it. (p. 315)

The reader — who of course wants to know the truth, if not quite as desperately as Frank does — feels complicit in this vicious behaviour. Imelda tells him what he wants to know but, when she interrupts her own story to protest that she never meant any harm to Rosie, Frank hurls a heavy ashtray through the screen of her television.

She shook her head, wild-eyed. She had a hand pressed over her mouth: someone had trained her not to scream. (p. 317)

Shay’s final hope of escape from his family has been to buy out the bike repair shop where he works, now that his employer is retiring. He tells his siblings that the Dublin of illusory prosperity and inflating property prices is rapidly heading for collapse. He’s right, of course, as we know. The next book in the series, Broken Harbour is set amid the consequences of that collapse.

Pat and Jenny Spain had seemed to be doing very well during the good times. They had healthy incomes, foreign holidays, a very active social life. Pat was delighted when they concluded that it was within their means for Jenny to give up work and become a full-time homemaker. But house prices were soaring and they needed to “get on the property ladder” before they were permanently left behind, so they bought a house on an unfinished estate some 40 minutes drive north of Dublin, with no facilities and where their friends were reluctant to visit. Then the crash came, the builders went bust, the estate was never finished. Not long afterwards Pat lost his job.

Almost all the main characters in Broken Harbour end up behaving irrationally, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of that irrationality is in the nature of things — it’s a given, something that has always been there, unexplained and without any identifiable cause. Much of it, though, is brought about by people’s stubborn insistence on believing that their economic and material circumstances are different from what they can clearly see to be the case.

Pat becomes convinced that a wild animal, probably a mink, is invading the attic of their house. As he sees it, the animal is intelligent and malicious, evading the increasingly heavy duty traps that Pat sets for it and the baby monitors he uses to try to catch a glimpse of it. Pat refuses to set up a proper video camera or to close up the hole under the eaves through which the animal is presumably getting in and out. The reasons he gives for these refusals are strained and unconvincing.

The intrusive animal must be imaginary, though their son Jack agrees that he too has heard it; and daughter Emma eventually admits that she has actually seen it and drawn a picture. Only Jenny remains convinced of its nonexistence. But Jenny has her own problems. She has started to forget what she has just been doing: going to take a second shower while her hair is still wet from the first, or calling the children to get ready to go shopping when she has already bought everything she needed earlier. And, ironically, if Pat’s animal intruder is a hallucination, there is a very real human intruder of whose existence Jenny remains uncertain.

Pat’s former best friend, Conor, who has been in love with Jenny since they were teenagers, has set up a hide in an half-built house across from the Spain’s large kitchen window, from where he watches their family life. Conor can enter their house at will because he can see the keypad for their alarm system, so he knows the current code however often they change it. He has a key to their backdoor because the builder, presumably to save money, installed identical locks with interchangeable keys in many of the houses in the estate.

Conor comes into their house and takes small things, including a pen that Jenny had kept as a memento of their honeymoon. One fateful Sunday night, he leaves something behind: a rusting badge intended to remind Jenny of a happy summer when they had campaigned to save an ice-cream kiosk facing a prohibitive rent increase. Jenny can’t be sure that she hasn’t moved or placed these items herself and quickly forgotten. The day after Conor leaves the badge, the two children are smothered in their beds and Jenny and Pat are both stabbed multiple times in their kitchen.

When the police come to the scene, Jenny is barely alive but the other members of the family are all dead. Scorcher Kennedy, who was outsmarted by Frank Mackey in the previous book, is the Murder Squad detective given the case, paired with a newly promoted probationer, Richie Curran. Kennedy is used to mentoring rookies but he quickly comes to think of Richie as more than that, a useful partner. Richie is empathetic, good at putting people at their ease and getting them to talk to him. He has a detective’s instincts.

Kennedy believes in the importance of control, particularly but not only self-control. He’s even-tempered and quick thinking and doesn’t lose his cool. If he finds it necessary to bawl out a uniformed officer or a “floater”, he compensates with praise or encouragement. So, when Richie argues with him or questions his judgment, he doesn’t tell the rookie to get back in his box and do what he’s told, but hears him out, argues back, and explains his thinking where necessary.

The detectives soon find Conor’s lair and eventually arrest and interview him. Conor confesses to the killings but refuses to give any explanation or to account for his motives. Kennedy thinks Conor’s confession is true but agrees that Richie can continue to investigate Pat. His rationale is that in doing so they’re making sure that there aren’t avenues that Conor’s defence lawyers could pursue to try to deflect blame from him.

Much later, Kennedy is ambushed with evidence that Richie had found and sat on, which clearly shows that Pat was not the killer. It emerges that Richie has known ever since they searched Conor’s flat that Pat was an innocent victim but he feels that the real killer has suffered enough and is no danger to anybody else so that it would be best all around to let the dead man take the blame. Kennedy is appalled, and points out that there is a compelling practical reason as well as one of principle why they shouldn’t manipulate the evidence as Richie wants to. Kennedy belatedly comes to see that Richie is not, after all, a natural detective.

Here I had thought it was Richie’s knack, his special gift, coaxing witnesses and suspects into believing, absurd and impossible though it was, that he saw them as human beings. I had been so impressed by the way he had convinced the Gogans they were more than random irritating scumbags to him, the way he had convinced Conor Brennan he was more than just another wild animal we needed to get off the street. I should have known … and I should have seen the danger: it wasn’t an act. (p. 448; all ellipsis in quotation is added)

The evidence that Richie had discovered can’t now be used at trial because the chain of custody was broken. Not only that, but the defence lawyers will be able to use Richie’s conduct to attack the credibility of all the evidence that he and Kennedy have produced in the case. Kennedy and the Superintendent agree that Richie will go back to uniform and spend the rest of his career there. He has botched the only chance he will ever have to be a detective.

In the meantime, Kennedy has salvaged the case after a fashion by persuading Fiona, Jenny’s younger sister who briefly dated Conor years earlier, and who initially raised the alarm when she couldn’t contact Jenny on the morning after the killings, to help him to plant some fabricated evidence. Fiona is even more reluctant than Richie was to see the killer get a life sentence but Kennedy talks her into it by assuring her that this is (from her point of view) by far the lesser of two evils.

Kennedy has never before seriously considered planting evidence and doesn’t ever want to find himself in a position where he’ll be tempted to do so again:

It was that I was dangerous. Stepping over the line had come so easily, once there was no other way; so naturally. You can tell yourself as much as you want It was only this once, it’ll never happen again, this was different. There will always be another once-off, another special case that needs just one little step further. All it takes is that first tiny hole in the levee, so tiny it does no harm to anything. (p. 531)

Kennedy has decided to leave the force, once the trial in the Spain case is finished. As his much prized self-control repeatedly slipped during the course of the investigation, he had come to realize that he wasn’t in fact the person he had long taken himself to be.

The ghost estate where the Spains had bought their ill-fated house was known as Brianstown, a bland name presumably chosen by the developers in case the original name, Broken Harbour, deterred any potential buyers. Kennedy had spent his summer holidays in Broken Harbour as a child, his family booking a caravan there each year. His mother, who suffered from depression, had been happy there as nowhere else. But on the last night of their final holiday there, when Kennedy was fourteen, she drowned herself in the sea. She had, initially at least, intended to take the younger of Kennedy’s two sisters, Dina, with her. In her suicide note, she wrote:

Dina is too little to do without her mum. (p. 348)

Dina survived, though Kennedy never found out whether that was because his mother changed her mind or because Dina had got away from her, or for some other, more mysterious reason. All Dina would ever say about it was that she had had bad dreams. Kennedy always believed that Dina’s mental illness was the result of that experience, but Dina insists that he’s wrong. Even before her mother’s suicide, Dina had suffered from delusions or hallucinations but people put that down to her vivid childish imagination. When Kennedy asks her “If it wasn’t Mum, then why?”, she responds:

“There isn’t any why. That’s what I mean, trying to organise me. I’m not crazy because anything. I just am. … I know that’s not what you want to think.” (p. 342)

It offends Kennedy’s sense of order to believe that misfortunes like Dina’s mental illness or the extreme bad luck that has overtaken the Spain family could happen for no reason.

Dina wants to get her brother away from the Broken Harbour case because she believes that it is “wrecking your head going back there” (p. 343). Kennedy thinks she is just being selfish and demanding and he eventually explodes at her.

I hadn’t lost my temper since I was a teenager, not like this and definitely not at Dina, and it felt like doing a hundred down a motorway on six stright vodkas, immense and lethal and vicious. (p. 346)

Scorcher is getting a taste for relinquishing his prized self-control. After Dina has gone away in a fury, he goes with Richie to have another go at the Gogan family, witnesses who live across the road from the Spain’s house. The two detectives agree that the Gogans are holding back some relevant information and now Scorcher threatens Mrs Gogan so as to get her to divulge it.

I don’t talk to witnesses this way. My bedside manner may not be the finest, I may have a rep for being cold or brusque or whatever people want to call it, but I had never in my career done anything like this. It wasn’t because I hadn’t wanted to. Don’t fool yourself: we all have a cruel streak. We keep it under lock and key either because we’re afraid of getting punished or because we believe this will somehow make a difference, make the world a better place. (p. 380)

Later, while interviewing Conor, their suspect in custody, he again resorts to the kind of tactics he has always kept well clear of in the past:

I threw the evidence bag somewhere and slammed my hands against the wall on either side of Conor’s head, pinning him in. My voice was rising and I didn’t care. … My palms hit the wall again and again and the judders ran up through my bones, but if there was pain I didn’t feel it. I had never done anything like this before and I couldn’t remember why because it felt incredible, it felt like pure savage joy. (p. 423)

Scorcher had developed his habit of self-control and his even temper shortly after his mother’s death. The family had been so effective at hiding his mother’s depression that people took it for granted that she had killed herself because his father had treated her badly. For a while the teenage Kennedy had responded to such suggestions from his schoolmates with fisticuffs. Before long, though, he’d used up his “sympathy points” (p. 524) and had to find a different approach. The unfairness of his father’s undeserved reputation as an abuser is partly why he was so appalled by the prospect of letting Pat Spain, even in death, take the blame for the annihilation of most of his family. (Another reason was that he felt that Pat had done everything he was supposed to, assiduously followed the rules, and still got a raw deal.)

In the end, Scorcher Kennedy was forced to confront the facts that neither the world nor his place in it was as he had supposed them to be. In that, at least he was a step ahead of several of the other characters in Broken Harbour.

If Faithful Place is about two cities named Dublin, each poking through the gaps in the other, Broken Harbour features a similarly self-contradictory locus: the concocted, fictitious (and never-to-be-completed) Brianstown attempting to occupy the same physical space as the older Broken Harbour, site of joy and loss, lonely death and miraculous survival.

I’ll be writing about the final two books in Tana French’s series in about two months’s time.

Editions: Both books are quoted from the Hachette Books Ireland paperbacks, 2011 and 2013 respectively.