These last few weeks I have discovered Tana French, who writes Dublin placed psychological thrillers within a setting of the boom and bust era of recent. These are thrillers which I would class as genuine noir, they’re not bland ‘whodunit’ stories; they provide an often disturbing commentary on evils and horrors in present day society and culture. French is a terrific writer who does dialogue and settings like no other, and her story development is engaging: you cannot stop reading because you need to know more, the characters have caught your imagination and you are hooked.
In Broken Harbour French takes on living in a new housing development just outside Dublin, being built at the hight of the property boom when houses have been sold to aspiring young couples who dream about climbing the property ladder and living in a paradise of mod cons that will have the kind of facilities and chic that their parents could only dream of. Ocean View in Brianstown is just such an estate, built in an area off the coach that used to be called Cold Harbour, a holiday camp with caravans where city people could enjoy a few weeks away from it all in a cheap environment right next tot the sea even though the weather is rarely that of a Mediterranean summer. Buyers take on a 110% mortgage and when the boom turns to bust, builders disappear leaving behind a ghost estate of half built houses and amenities, where the unlucky ones who have meanwhile moved in find that their houses crumble and develop structural faults that no one will now put right.
The Spains are one such family: husband, wife and two children; Patrick and Jenny are the exemplar couple to their friends and relatives; they have been in love since their teenage years and they grab the opportunity of buying a house in Brianstown, “a new revelation in premier living. Luxury houses now viewing“.
Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy (Mick) is called in by his superior and is asked to take on a most appalling and horrifying crime: the Spain family has been attached in their own home, the two children have been suffocated in their bed, Pat is dead and Jenny is discovered still breathing and taken to hospital, fighting for her life. Both Patrick and Jenny have multiple stab wounds and there appears to have been a struggle with blood everywhere in their beautiful kitchen.
All kinds of emotions are set in train for Kennedy when he discovers the location of the crime, which he knows as Cold Harbour, the beach area where his parents once a year took him and his two sisters and where they stayed in a caravan. It was the only place and these were the only two weeks that his mother appeared to be happy until at the end of the holiday when Patrick is 15 she walks into the sea and kills herself.
About the difference between Ireland today and the Ireland of his youth he muses ‘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 even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad then, don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly.’
The two stories of the horrific murder of the Spains family and Patrick’s coming to terms intertwine naturally given the setting; both are inextricably linked to Cold Harbour, Patrick’s emotions are inevitably drawn back to what happened in the past and this crumbling estate where evil and demons spread like a sticky black dust. Will Kennedy be able to hold together the awful discoveries he and his young ‘rookie’ Ritchie make as well as the demands on him by his youngest sister who has been damaged beyond repair by what happened that night their mother died, and by the many shadows cast by his experiences?
“I didn’t tell him [Ritchie]: the ghosts I believe in weren’t trapped in Spains’ bloodstains. They thronged the whole estate, whirling like great moths in and out of the empty doorways and over the expanses of cracked earth, battering against the sparse lighted windows, mouths stretched wide in silent howls: all the people who should have lived here.”
The end of the book is devastating and the understanding of what happened to the Spains and how they ended up slaughtered on their own kitchen floor knocks Kennedy backwards.
This is a fantastic good read: the creepiness and the bleakness of the story were intensified as I read this whilst staying alone on the top floor of a city apartment with creaking floorboards and gurgling water pipes.
I immediately downloaded another of French’s books, Faithful Place, which is also set in Dublin. Unusually, rather than sticking to the same Detective in her different novels, in Faithful Place a different detective, Frank Mackey, in Undercover, rather than in the Murder Squad is the focus. In Cold Harbour ‘Scorcher’ portrays himself as the good guy with decent looks and who is very capable. In Faithful Place we come across him but from the point of view of Frank Undercovers are better at subtlety and when the Murder Squad turns up ‘The cavalry had arrived, and it was Scorcher Kennedy”.
“Scorcher’s real name is Mick. The nickname was my doing, and personally I think I let him off lightly. He liked winning, our Mick’ I’m pretty fond of it myself, but I know how to be subtle. Kennedy had a nasty little habit, when he came top at anything, of pumping his fist int hear and murmuring ‘Goal!’, almost but not quite under his breath.”
So then Frank takes the piss and asks ‘Mikey, is that a goal? Is it a good one, yeah? Is it a real scorcher?’
You notice I’m well away in this book as well and read half of it on my way back from Rotterdam to Norfolk yesterday.