Thursday, September 11, 2014

Broken Harbour - Tana French

Early in Tana French's 'Broken Harbour', detective Kennedy and his partner enter a house where a family of 4 have been brutally assaulted with only the mother still alive. At that poiint, Kennedy, his partner and yes the readers sense the presence of evil, which doesn't leave it's grip on Kennedy/the readers until the very end, and even then there is a lingering aftertaste of its presence.  It is not just to the violent nature of the crime. The holes that have been made in the walls, the surveillance cameras in the various rooms, what do they indicate? Was the family being targeted by someone (or something) which the holes bored in the walls indicate?  Were they waiting in fearful anticipation of something evil striking them and taken precautions in the form of surveillance cameras? Imagine a family of a couple and 2 kids living in constant fear of what would finally befall them, the mind cracking waiting for it.

Tana's earlier novels have a pattern where the main protagonist of the novel faces a case (which is the novel) which shatters him completely. It is the same here. Kennedy is a detective who has the highest solve rate in the squad and right from the beginning we know that this case will test him like no other (in Kennedy's own words as he is the narrator). Throughout the novel, there are various incidents that she hints at as being very relevant/non-relevant to the novel.  There is a very obvious red herring in the early stages of the novel regarding a suspect, an incident towards the middle which Kennedy refers to (in hindsight) as being critical
which in normal cases would have acted as spoilers. But Tana doesn't worry about these things as the way in which she unravels the story and her narrative verve ensure that the user never relaxes one bit even though he feels that Tana has shown all her cards. This is because there is always a feeling that she is holding one card back, one that would once again re-frame your entire understanding of the events, the red herring suspect not completely being a red herring an example of this. You some that something is not completely right and yet not completely wrong too.

Setting a 500 plus page novel over the course of 3-4 days takes some doing. A lot of things happen at the micro level but at times one could feel that nothing major is happening. The first 150 odd pages are devoted to the first day of the investigation. This again could have proved counter productive as the reader may get put off by this long drawn out day to day detailing, but here too Tana's narration ensures that this does not happen, the stake out near the house of the victims being one example. Drawn out over 2 days (nights actually), it is guaranteed to give you the chills. At every step, there is an expectation of something happening, some new fact coming to light and it does happen. Kennedy's character initially comes across as  pompous and insufferable and yes he is all these things. A protagonist like this is a sure fire recipe for a novel collapsing. But it is to Tana's credit that she brings out the goal oriented driven part of his character, that makes us slowly understand his manic need for control always, which makes him bearable even if does not endear him to us.

There are a few minor missteps too. Interleaved with the investigation is Kennedy's past which is again a technique done to perfection earlier by Tana in her 'In the Woods'. Towards the end, she gives out a revelation about an incident in the past. One can contrast this with 'In the woods' where the ambiguity about the protagonist's past was maintained till the end.  One can also guess right at the beginning about the toll this investigation will taken on Kennedy (Kennedy pretty much gives it away), but compared to the other hints that Tana drops and still packs a punch when finally revealing them, this one feels like a let down from the high standards till then. Of course, as in other cases. both these incidents are backed up logically, but there is a sense of a contrivance, a sense that Tana is trying a bit too hard (particularly the tipping point for Kennedy's decision) to ensure that things are tied up neatly. 

These don't matter much, as in the end the novel is not as much about the 'who' or the 'how', the mystery or the final revelation. It is also not about Kennedy taking too much of the limelight and distracting the reader from the victims. It is more about the 'why' and the events leading up to it. The unraveling of the events is not about the mystery as much as it is about the unraveling of a mind.  As Kennedy digs further into the lives of the victims, we see something that could happen to us, an evil that could touch us as easily as it touched the victims. It is then you finally understand the presence of the evil that you sensed right at the beginning. 

In a way the novel is also a commentary on how transient 'financial stability' has become in these times of more frequent/short cycles of financial boom/recession. At beginning of the investigation Kennedy says  " it gets there because they open the door and invite it in," about murders happening. Yes, the evil is out there, just waiting to be invited by unsuspecting folks who just want to lead a happy life and think that what they invite would help towards that. But what they find is that they have not invited a matronly 'grandma', but a big bad red wolf. But by then, the wolf has taken over the house. Is it a mistake of the victims or is it something that is near impossible to avoid in this age of consumerism. Can this evil be ever fully destroyed? The novel leaves with such sobering questions at the end rather than the exhilaration of a thrilling hunt.

With 5 novels (the latest one being published just about a week ago), Tana French is a distinct voice straddling both the police procedural as well as psychological crime, but ultimately carving out an identity of her own. Not be missed.