Broken Harbour and The Story of Land and Sea: The Skinny on Two Novels

Broken Harbour (Penguin, 452 pp.) is an older mystery (2012), but I decided to read it because I'm bored with Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, and the entire Boston wise guys genre. Thank goodness I ran into the talented Tana French. Broken Harbour is a long novel, but every page is so beautifully written and gripping that I never even tempted to peek to the ending.

Make sure you read this one!
The setting is Brianstown, an instant seaside community hastily and shoddily constructed during Ireland's brief flirtation with prosperity (2001-03). The views are terrific, but it's 45 minutes from Dublin and feels a million miles from nowhere—a place that was supposed to teem with middle class life but collapsed with the Irish economy and is so thinly populated its feel is analogous to the abandoned mall in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. One of its families, though, is the Spains—Pat, Jenny, and two adorable children. Pat and Jenny–always mentioned as a twin set–are such the dream couple that years later childhood and college friends continue to invoke them as all that life and love should be. So when Pat and the kids are brutally murdered and Jenny is left in a pool of blood barely clinging to life, detective Mike Kennedy and novice Richie Curren are off to solve the case. Kennedy's sent because he's the best—he's nicknamed "Scorcher" because of the speed in which he solves difficult cases. This time, though, he has both a rookie sidekick and quite a few personal demons to exorcise, not the least of which is that Brianstown sits on the harbor where his mother drowned herself.

Salon dubbed this novel "suburban Gothic," and that's an excellent handle. Everything about this novel is well done—the forensics, the psychological profiles, the build up, and the pay off. It's one of those books that throws a curve just when you think you've got it parsed. I figured out whodunnit, but French's solution still surprised me. I'll also say that this book made me so nervous about attics that I'm glad my house doesn't have one. And, no, the Celtic Tiger wasn't up there, though metaphorically speaking, it could have been.

You can give this one a miss.
Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel The Story of Land and Sea (2014, Harper, 256 pp.) has garnered high praise, but it gets little love from me. It's set in the region of Beaufort, South Carolina just before and after the American Revolution and revolves around the courtship and marriage of John and Helen. He is an ex-pirate and Revolutionary War soldier, and she the daughter of plantation privilege and a stern religious father.

The Story of Land and Sea is a nicely written book, but for me its taste was treacly   sweet, even when one of the plot's numerous tragedies was being played out. It unfolds out of chronological time and one of my problems with the book is young Helen's relationship with her slave, Molly—one that struck me as more white Southern wish fulfillment than plausible. In similar fashion, John's character seemed too modern—a former privateer turned SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Maybe all of these things resolved and The Story of Land and Sea took a dark turn. I wouldn't know. I lost interest in the book's languid palmetto pacing and gave up half way through. –Rob Weir

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