Broken Harbour is the most recent release from Tana French, author of In The Woods and Faithful Place. A gripping story of desperation, confusion and the search for truth, Broken Harbour follows Detective 'Scorcher' Kennedy as he battles demons from his past while taking on the violent murders of the present. Laura Harman catches up with the author.
Hi Tana. Why do you not write one series character and follow them through their life?
I’m interested in writing about the turning points in characters’ lives – the huge, high-stakes moments when you know that the rest of your life will be defined by the choice you make here. In a detective novel, that’s going to mean the case that breaks down the boundaries between the detective’s professional and personal lives, and transforms both.
The thing is: most of us only have a few of those moments in a lifetime. In order to write a series character, I’d have to either keep dumping the poor guy (or girl) into huge life-changing situations, on an improbably regular basis, or else switch tactic and do the more usual series thing of following the character through all the smaller ups and downs of life – and, while I love reading those series, I’m not all that interested in writing them. So it makes more sense to switch narrator.
It also means that I get to explore the ways that identity is subjective: who a character is depends, to some extent, on whose version you’re reading. In Faithful Place, for example, Scorcher Kennedy is a pompous, rule-bound, irritating git – but that’s because he’s seen through Frank Mackey’s eyes, and that’s what Frank needs to see. In Broken Harbour, where Scorcher is the narrator and we get to see him much more intimately, he’s more complicated, more intense and far more badly damaged than the version Frank sees.
Are you ever tempted to bring back major characters, perhaps if you feel there's an element to them you haven't explored?
Each of the books is focused on a case that goes right to the heart of who the narrator is, and they’re all about five million pages long, so the important elements tend to get a good going-over. But I do get tempted to bring back major characters because I miss writing them.
Frank in Faithful Place was the most fun to write – that black, hard-edged humour – but, in different ways, I’d love to go back to all my narrators. I definitely haven’t ruled out any of them.
Do you have a minor character in this novel who you're considering bringing back, even if you can't tell us which one?
No one from Broken Harbour. I’m working on Book 5 at the moment – it’s provisionally called The Secret Place, and the narrator this time is Stephen Moran, who showed up in Faithful Place as Frank’s half-unwilling young sidekick.
Frank’s daughter Holly is sixteen now, and she shows up at Stephen’s work with a postcard she found pinned to the Secret Place, a board where girls in her school can put up their secrets anonymously. The card has a photo of a murdered teenage boy, and the caption says ‘I know who killed him.’
Oh, I can't wait to read it! Money and the lack of it is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Do you think crime rates have increased since the recession?
I don’t know much about crime rates, but I do think that the lack of money – especially the sudden lack of money – can sometimes do strange things to people. Pat and Jenny Spain (two of the victims in Broken Harbour) bought into the Celtic Tiger idea that your financial worth is the main indicator of what you’re worth as a person.
So when Pat loses his job and they suddenly find themselves struggling to pay the mortgage and bills, it devastates them not just financially and emotionally, but also psychologically. It’s not just their home and their security that are under threat; it’s their entire sense of who they are. And when that’s under attack, people can become dangerous in their desperation to protect it.
Do you think that certain kinds of crime are more acceptable (or maybe understandable) in a recession, such as theft?
No. Some kinds of theft are definitely understandable, and some can even be morally acceptable – but if they’re understandable or acceptable during a recession, they’re equally so during a boom. There are always poor people, during boom or bust (I should know; we spent most of the boom being very broke).
If you say that stealing is more acceptable during a recession because more people are poor, then you’re saying that morality depends not on the act or on the individual context, but simply on being in the majority: if one person is poor, then it’s evil for him to steal; but if a lot of people are poor, then stealing somehow becomes OK.
That kind of thinking – the idea that what’s in line with the majority experience or the current trend must be morally superior, and must deserve more moral leeway – is one of the things that got Ireland into this recession to begin with.
The novel explores a number of mental health issues, of varying severity, though the exact diagnoses are not revealed. Do you think everyone suffers from mental health issues in some way?
I don’t think everyone has mental illnesses – we’ve all got weak points and aspects of life where we have to put in extra work, sure, but that’s on a different part of the spectrum from actual mental illness.
But I think that during the Celtic Tiger, Ireland had a national movement towards a complete dislocation from reality. We were being told, from all directions, that what mattered was what you believed, not what was real. We were in the middle of a completely artificial and obviously unsustainable property bubble, but we were told that it would last forever if we just kept believing in it.
When anyone dared to point out the reality that this might not end well, politicians and developers leapt on him, screaming that, if the bubble did burst, it would be his fault for not believing in it hard enough. The actual facts were irrelevant and unpatriotic. There was a national fracture between reality and perception; perception wasn’t expected to have any link to reality.
As far as I can tell – and I’m no expert – that dislocation is at the heart of just about every mental illness. On the most concrete level, that’s what destabilises Scorcher’s younger sister Dina: her experience of the world keeps coming detached from what she knows to be the reality, and she can’t reconnect them.
On another level, that’s what destroys the Spains, the young family who’ve been attacked at the beginning of Broken Harbour. They believed that if you do your best, play by the rules and do things the way you’re told to, everything will work out – and when they’re confronted by the dislocation between that belief and the reality, it breaks them.
Detective Kennedy asserts that a case doesn't stop just when you've got the cuffs on someone. Does this reflect your own, or police, exasperation towards books and television programmes which end at this stage?
No exasperation, at least on my side; more like fascination. As you say, most detective stories (including mine) are at least 95% about whodunit; after that’s revealed, there’s a quick wrap-up and the story’s over.
The biggest surprise for me, when I started doing research for my first book, was how often real detectives know, very early on, exactly whodunit. The time and energy and hard work goes into proving it; for them, most of the suspense isn’t about who their man is, it’s about whether they’ll ever be able to bring him in.
And sometimes, of course, it doesn’t work out. I can’t imagine what that must feel like: knowing exactly who killed someone, and knowing you’ll never be able to do anything about it.
The story rotates around a recent housing development. Do you hold Detective Kennedy's view that someone has to dream the future and developments are both necessary and good? Or do you believe that we should try harder to appreciate what we currently have?
I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. It’s very possible to dream the future and value the present and the past, to believe in both the preciousness of what we have and the necessity of moving forward.
In Greece and Italy, I’ve seen archaeological ruins incorporated into new buildings, or covered with heavy glass so that people walk over them as part of their daily lives. To me, that seems like the healthy, sane attitude towards integrating past and future: understand that they’re intertwined, and find ways for them to coexist.
But Ireland doesn’t have a very good record of finding that balance. Maybe because the national past is full of things like colonisation and oppression and famine, we’ve got an uneasy relationship with it and with the idea of valuing it.
So, if anyone suggests that it might not be either necessary or positive to destroy millennia of heritage in order to build a bunch of unwanted apartment blocks that will fall apart at the first high wind, developers and politicians (who get on very, very well) shriek and froth at the mouth like he’s suggesting a return to the horse and carriage. We need a new motorway? Let’s build it straight over a hugely important archaeological site. We need new Corporation buildings? Let’s raze a Viking settlement.
The problem with that approach isn’t just that you lose irreplaceable parts of your history. It’s that smashing your past into dust isn’t a sane way to build a future. You end up with something built on no foundations, something with no strength and no staying power. In concrete terms or in psychological ones, that’s not healthy and it’s doomed. You need a balance.
In researching for your novel, did you come across any tension between police departments as it appears that Detective Kennedy's murder department keeps itself as private/separate as possible? Is this just necessary, given the work that they do?
No, I just invented that part! In Ireland, there isn’t actually a Murder squad – but the books needed that sense of an elite, intense, highly pressured unit where everything becomes intensified.
In reality, these investigations do get very intense, but they’re a lot more cooperative than they are in the books. Especially when there are child victims, like there are in Broken Harbour, everyone does absolutely everything they can to help.
Do you know what happens to Detective Kennedy after the story ends?
No. I do think that, although the events of the book have devastated him, in some ways they’ve freed him as well.
He’s believed since childhood that you have to be constantly in control, of yourself and of the situation, and that any lapse in that control is a potential disaster. Basically, he’s always felt that he’s holding together his sanity, and the world’s sanity, through sheer ferocious willpower.
Through the events of the book, he comes to a realisation that it’s not that simple. The realisation is a painful one, but I think it probably frees him from the need to maintain that desperate constant control, and opens the door to a life where he could be happier.
BROKEN HARBOUR published by Hodder & Stoughton 19 July 2012, Hbk £18.99
Rotary Picture © Kyran O'Brien