- - Thursday, July 19, 2012

By Tana French
Viking, $27.95450 pages

What if the wolf at the door were more than metaphor? This is the premise of Tana French’s latest detective novel, “Broken Harbor,” the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad series. These four novels have instated Ms. French as one of crime fiction’s reigning grand dames — a Celtic tigress. With this novel, she pushes the boundaries of her genre, offering more explicitly than she has in “In the Woods,” “The Likeness” and “Faithful Place,” a detective novel qua ghost story. In the world of Ms. French’s novels — most acutely in “Broken Harbor” — the line between the physical and the metaphysical, the past and the present, the psychological and the supernatural is permeable, even phantasmagoric.

In this, Ms. French’s novel revisits and revives the best of the 19th-century detective novel. Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” present curses that are not as they seem to be — the work of magic — but are of much more mundane stuff: greed, want, betrayal, revenge. The supernatural hellhound fabled to haunt the Baskervilles is a creature of phosphorus and human ingenuity, not of diabolical Fate — but in its embodiment of the savage desires that bring it into being, the hound is no less terrifying. This could happen to you, Doyle’s novella warns: Human frailty and its manifold forms of despair, madness and depravity bring such beasts into being every day. And so it is in “Broken Harbor.”

The novel is set in one of post-crash Ireland’s ghost estates: the hundreds of developments, the hundreds of thousands of homes abandoned, decaying, semi-inhabited or uninhabited, half-built, or never-finished that loom on the outskirts of Dublin and offer a spectral reminder of the heady days before the global financial crisis, when real estate seemed the surest of sure things. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the murder squad’s most upstanding young officer, and Ritchie Curran, his rookie partner, are assigned a career case: the massacre of a young family in Brianstown, a seaside ghost estate once known as Broken Harbor.

This isn’t Detective Kennedy’s first visit to Broken Harbor, as readers of Ms. French’s previous novels perhaps will expect. The past, for Ms. French, is never past: Kennedy spent summer holidays in the town as a boy — before his mother killed herself there and left his father and his youngest sister psychologically shattered. His memories of these summers are the happiest of his childhood, and so Kennedy’s investigation into what happened to Jenny and Pat Spain, a golden couple whose charmed life fell to pieces there in the wake of the financial crisis, inevitably becomes a more intimate investigation. The place and case echo with Kennedy’s own memories of happiness and loss, and so Kennedy, like Ms. French’s other first-person detective narrators, is hunting himself, solving the case of his family, his calling and character, as he hunts the Spains’ killer.

But for all their temperamental differences, Ms. French’s detectives share a certain brokenness that draws them to their profession. They have all known some version of the violence the victims they serve have experienced; it has marked them early, and they are compelled toward detective work and its broken lives that won’t ever come right again. Kennedy may insist that “murder is chaos” and that detectives “stand against that, for order,” but he comes to know better as Ms. French always has. Chaos and order, right and wrong, are hopelessly confused in the case of the Spains from the beginning. What’s right, after all, in a hardworking man and woman who have always played by the rules ending up broke and terrified for all of their hard work, savings and can-do attitude? And what’s right about a radiantly happy marriage undone by the vagaries of the global economy?

While “Broken Harbor” has a slightly distracting structural clumsiness, its imagining of the consequences of the global financial crisis on such an intimate scale is haunting. It’s not the fashion in literary fiction these days to address such things as the psychological devastation that a fallout of the middle class can wreak on those who have never known anything else, and Ms. French does it with aplomb — and a headless sparrow and dozens of infrared baby monitors.

The wolf at Pat and Jenny Spain’s door — unemployment, looming poverty and squalor, the inability to imagine a life outside of the middle class — becomes a palpable, hungry presence in their family life and a lesson in the fragility of personal identity and morality. To say more would be to spoil the plot — and thus one of the chief pleasures of a sturdy summer thriller, which this book decidedly is. Ms. French knows what all the best practitioners of the gothic know: that the things that go bump in the night aren’t supernatural — they’re as mundane as pink slips, kitchen knives and bud vases.

• Emily Colette Wilkinson is a recent winner of the Virginia Quarterly’s Young Reviewers Contest. She lives in Williamsburg, Va.

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