Even if it weren't for the murdered family a husband hacked to death with a kitchen knife, a grievously injured wife barely hanging on, two kids smothered in their beds Broken Harbor would be a pretty depressing place. Irish crime writer Tana French sets her latest procedural in a shoddily constructed housing subdivision outside of Dublin that now sits unfinished, inhabited by families who fell for the developers' pitch and squatters who camp in the empty hulks of half-built houses.
Into this grim landscape walks detective ''Scorcher'' Kennedy, a 10-year veteran of the murder squad who has a stiff demeanor, a stellar clearance record, and his own fraught history with Broken Harbor, where his family vacationed when he was a kid. He's there to investigate that vicious crime against the Spain family, who are, it soon becomes clear, victims twice over: first of Ireland's economic decline and now of some mystery slasher. French builds suspense with subtle expertise and an ear for the quirks of Irish speech (did you forget that yoke in your gaff, but?), tapping into the setting's gone-to-seed emptiness and amping up the menace with some exquisitely creepy business involving strange scratching noises in the Spains' attic.
A few characters (the rookie learning the ropes, the grumpy ME) feel too familiar, and a major twist involving Kennedy's partner stretches plausibility. But French has that procedural pro's knack for making mundane police work seem fascinating. And she's drawn not just to the who but also to the why those bigger mysteries about the human weaknesses that drive somebody to such inhuman brutality. What really gives Broken Harbor its nerve-rattling force is her exploration of events leading up to the murders, rendered just as vividly as the detectives' scramble to solve them. A-