When you lock your doors…

Broken HarbourTana French: Broken Harbour
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2012
ISBN: 978 0 340 97764 4
RRP: $17

So you married your childhood sweetheart, had your pigeon pair, left work to be a good mother and bring them up, bought a lovely home in a new seaside estate on the outskirts of Dublin in 2006, now what happens next? Not much that’s good according to Tana French. Using a particularly bloody family murder as the vehicle for her story, French explores two fascinating themes; why people bought into these estates and the effect that their housing choices had on them.

The seductive publicity surrounding these estates emerges when a neighbour shows the detectives the brochures advertising the Ocean View Estate and showing the housing styles; all named after jewels, ranging from a five-bed detached with garage (The Diamond) to a two-bed duplex (The Topaz). As originally advertised the estate was going to be ‘a self-contained haven with all the premier facilities of cutting edge luxe living right on your doorstep’ (p.77). Included in the planned facilities were a crèche, leisure centre, corner shop and playground, what the residents actually got was no facilities whatever; not even street lights. French skewers the utter cynicism of Irish developers when she describes how the few residents left after the crash demanded that the leisure centre be built for them. In response, the developers put an exercise bike in an empty house which was soon robbed.

French makes great use of the shoddy building standards as a metaphor for the collapse of Irish society. Astonishingly given the Irish climate, new houses were built which immediately leaked. The thin, badly installed interior walls granted little privacy or warmth and the outer walls, more importantly, gave little protection against whatever was outside. All this would have been bad enough for families fully employed and happily involved in their society, but once unemployment became chronic, money got short and the second car had to go, people were thrown onto their own resources. These soon prove to be utterly inadequate both personally and materially. Slowly one of the family becomes convinced that there is something rustling and scratching about in the house. The fact that only he can hear it fails to diminish his enthusiasm and ingenuity in trying to catch it, but what is the ‘something’ that has moved into the fabric of Irish society itself – to start rustling, scratching and terrifying the inhabitants?

Unusually in a detective novel, its hero Detective Kennedy undergoes considerable personal development in the course of the investigation. Starting out as a black-and-white, utterly self-confident moralist, the challenges of the case and his personal life wear him down. He remembers the new estate of Brianstown when it was called Broken Harbour – a place where working class families saved up all year to spend two weeks by the sea in a caravan. He also remembers the Ireland of 30 years ago and comments:

There was plenty of bad there, .. but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. .. if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbours, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero. (p. 101)

Since then, as he remarks ‘we started turning feral’ and even his ironclad morality is shattered by the end of the story.

French’s novel traces the gradual deterioration of the moral certainties and ethical uprightness of all the main characters. She keeps stressing that all of these people began their move down the path of destruction because they wanted to do what the society around them told them was the right thing to do. Good mothers bring up their own children in a lovely home in the country. If that means that good fathers had to drive for miles and work all hours to make it happen, then that’s what needs to happen. The new planned estates are the best, sexiest places to live, so that’s where you buy your house. You would hardly expect that the new houses would have less weather resistance than many tents and there was no way to check because you bought them before they were even built. No need to worry about those old-fashioned people muttering about ‘Never buy a pig in a poke’.

Well-written and downright eerie in places – strongly recommended.

Felicity Allen.

Deputy Editor of Tinteaán, and a detective fiction writer, among other talents.