Message in a Bottle
Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken HarborAs promised in a post six months ago, it’s time to review Tana French’s new thriller, Broken Harbor. The July 24th pub date is fast approaching, and there’s already a video clip out of the author talking about her book.

Broken Harbor is French’s fourth effort, after In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place.  Her books are character-driven and feature flawed and compelling though not necessarily likeable protagonists. With each new book, French brings a new detective to the forefront, always a character who lurked in the background in the preceding novel. In Broken Harbor, the spotlight is on Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the jerky and by-the-book-only cop who tried to keep Frank away from the investigation in Faithful Place.

The recession, the property developers, the real estate promoters, and the banks are invisible yet present villains in this timely story. Kennedy’s big case calls him out to Broken Harbor, one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments scattered across Ireland, where Patrick Spain and his two young children are found dead. Spain’s wife, Jenny, is the only survivor, but she’s hanging on by a thread in intensive care. The Spains had fallen into the trap of the property boom and the dream of idyllic suburban life, and instead found they had spent ten times their income to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere in a never-to-be-finished development. Developers ran out of the money, the neighborhood remained unfinished and unpopulated, and Pat Spain lost his job. But what could have gone so completely wrong out there that led to murder?

The murders at the Spain house are only part of the story. Detective Kennedy has a past of his own in Broken Harbor. He’s dealing with a mentally ill sister whose childhood memories of Broken Harbor resurface when she learns her brother is on the case. His naive rookie sidekick, Richie, thinks the murders should be easy to solve. But there are too many holes in the obvious assumption that Pat Spain was responsible. Weird things were happening at the house: holes smashed in the walls, files missing off the computer, and a stalker who has been spying on the family.

One of French’s favorite plot devices is inadmissible evidence, and she uses it here in an utterly heartbreaking way that puts the flaws of the main detectives on full and painful display. One of Kennedy’s main characteristics is his by-the-rules approach, so what’s a guy like that to do when truth and justice are at odds with the law?

I liked Broken Harbor and remain as steadfast an admirer of Tana French as ever. If this is the first novel of hers that you read, you’ll be impressed. She’s a one-of-a-kind storyteller, truly in a league of her own. If, however, you’ve read her other books, you might share my nagging sentiment that she can do better. Faithful Place set the bar particularly high. You won’t go wrong reading Broken Harbor this summer if you want to read her newest, but for the best of Tana French, I’d send you to her backlist.


Marriage is the Ultimate Mystery

Gone GirlYou can often find Marni behind the front counter of Island Books, her honey-colored hair and love for dogs an innocent cover for her reading taste. She’s the other Island Books staffer besides me who gets positively giddy over a good psychological thriller. This became obvious when Marni and I tried to snatch an advanced copy of Tana French’s Broken Harbor out of each others’ hands. In a friendly way, of course. So when she emailed me at the end of March to say “There’s a new mystery/thriller by Gillian Flynn called Gone Girl that you should read. I’m so excited for it to come in so I can sell it!” I knew what needed to be next on my reading list.

I’m limited in what I can say without spoiling Gone Girl, but I will tell you this: no matter how much you think you have the mystery figured out, the second half of the book will blow you away. And if my review here isn’t sufficient to hook you, ask Marni to tell you more about Gone Girl when you drop by the store. Her eyes will light up (as much as if you bring your dog by).

Here’s a book that looks like a classic “the-husband-did-it” thriller. Believably told from alternating points of view (and not all writers can pull this off well, but Flynn does), the story begins when bar owner Nick comes home to find his stay-at-home wife Amy has disappeared, leaving only suspicious signs of a struggle, some tell-tale blood on the kitchen floor, and the back door wide open. As the investigation begins, sections of Amy’s diary written in past tense are interspersed with Nick’s experience in the present as he deals with the aftermath of her disappearance.

Amy tells the story of how they met as young writers in New York, fell in love, and got married. Then the economy turned sour and both lost their jobs, which led to a decision to move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to care for his dying mother. Amy’s parents are bestselling authors of a children’s book series called Amazing Amy, which chronicled a fictional version of their daughter as she grew up. Their bestselling work turned Amy into a trust-fund child, and allowed her to loan Nick the money to open a bar with his twin sister, Margo.

The Amy that comes across in the diary is madly in love with her husband and increasingly lonely after they leave New York. She leaves behind warning signs in her narrative that suggest that they struggled in their marriage and Nick has a temper he can’t control. Nick, on the other hand, despite his earnestness over the seriousness of the situation, lies to the police, Amy’s parents, and worst of all, us readers. The media doesn’t like him and his behavior following Amy’s disappearance is suspicious. We can see where this is going. Nick must be the one responsible. The question is why, and how. Or is it?

That’s where the story seems to be going, but then we’re smarter readers than that, aren’t we? The explanation can’t possibly be that simple. Then other suspects begin to pop up, including stalkers from Amy’s past (she’s had a few since she was the inspiration for a popular children’s book character). Her parents seem a little off, too. And then there’s that something that Nick’s sister Margo is hiding…

At this point in the review I’m using all my restraint to keep from dropping the bombshell on you. All I can say is you’ve never met a villain as creepy and distinctive as this one, or an ending that’s as uniquely disturbing. The darkest parts of this novel are not the crimes. What’s most unnerving about Gone Girl is, shockingly, the true nature of Nick and Amy’s superficially normal marriage.


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