‘Broken Harbor’: another brilliant, troubling Tana French novel

(Note: This blog post was supposed to run Saturday but because of a glitch only the headline ran.)

Tana French’s debut book, “In the Woods,” was showered with awards when it appeared in 2007, but the writer did not rest on her laurels.

Each new novel has been deeper and more ambitious than the previous one. Viking is publishing French’s fourth novel, “Broken Harbor,” on Tuesday and it is hard to imagine a better constructed and more gripping mystery.

French once again takes us into the world of the Dublin “Murder Squad” — her own creation — where we get to follow a detective on a very troubling case that also illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonist.

The Irish novel has avoided the trap of writing about one series character, but she rewards her regular readers by connecting the stories.

A minor character in one book can become a major player in the next story, and that’s what happens in “Broken Harbor” where the rather arrogant and unlikeable Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy of “Faithful Place” moves into center stage.

The confidence that seemed facile in the last novel becomes a mostly admirable characteristic in the new book as Mike has to cope with the especially awful case of a family murder in a remote housing development on the Irish coast. A young father and his two children are found dead, and the mother grievously wounded.

Mike levels with us about what he’s learned about violent crime, and while it isn’t a pleasant experience, it’s bracingly direct when he tells a callow new partner: “I know this isn’t what we get taught on the detective course, but out here in the real world, my man, you would be amazed at how seldom murder has to break into people’s lives. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it gets there because they open the door and invite it in.”

In other words, few people are killed by a stranger.

Suspicion in the case first focuses on the most likely suspect — the out-of-work father — but French lets us know right near the start that the case is going to prove to be much more complicated than the investigators can imagine when they arrive on the scene.

Like P.D. James, French gives us a very broad view of the setting of the crime and the unlikely people who are brought together by murder. The half-finished, mostly empty housing development becomes a haunting element in the book — symbolizing the terrible impact of the global financial collapse of 2008. The isolation and the dashed hopes represented by the failed development become central to the crime.

We also get to see that there is a lot more to Mike than we imagined in “Faithful Place.” His younger grown sister, Dina, who is suffering from mental illness, becomes a major character and Mike’s helpless pain over her situation makes him someone we care about deeply.