I thought I'd read for about 20 minutes, but when that was up I was near the end of a chapter, so I thought well I'll just finish this chapter and then so on until I'd finished the entire book in an hour-plus of solid reading. It wasn't even just reading, though: I felt like I was sort of holding on to the book and it was pulling me along. The ending of Broken Harbor is one of the greatest, and most chilling, endings to a book I've ever read.
Broken Harbor, like each book before it, takes a character from an earlier book and focuses on him or her. This time it's "Scorcher" Kennedy, the detective who was working on the murder in Faithful Place only to screw it up and have someone else get credit for the case. At the start of Broken Harbor Kennedy is getting out of the doghouse after a long while and is put on a new case, a family murdered in a subdivision being built out of an old harbor where, it turns out, Kennedy and his family used to vacation way back when.
The murdered family is two little kids and a husband; the wife is still living, barely, but not able to discuss the murders right away, and like all such murder mysteries, the heat is on. Kennedy is paired up with Richie, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks on his first big murder investigation; Kennedy gets Richie because he's never wanted a full-time partner, so he trains all the new guys and then passes them on to someone else.
Like French's other books, the story is as much about the characters as the murder; while the mystery is solid (the first walkthrough of the crime scene is excellent; this is easily French's creepiest book yet), it's the background on Kennedy and Richie and the family and everyone else we run into in the course of the investigation.
Kennedy's got baggage on this one: his family stopped going to Broken Harbor (now renamed a bland subdivision name) when his mom walked into the ocean and drowned herself one year, setting off what seemed to be schizophrenia in his youngest sister, Dina. He realizes that Broken Harbor appearing in the news is going to set her off again, and it does, so he's trying to investigate a murder while also keeping tabs on Dina, who is breaking down fast. Torn apart on all sides, he finds himself actually getting to like Richie as a potential permanent partner, even as the two argue about who is a more likely suspect, a friend of the family or the dead husband in a murder-suicide.
That all sounds good enough, but the mystery is layers and layers deeper than that; it's French's most complex mystery yet, and there are easily three or four different possible solutions to it, so even with my penchant for guessing that each new character is the murderer, I never even came close.
But that's not what makes the ending of the book like a black hole of suspense and intensity. What French does in the end is tie up, in a way, a running theme in the book: Whether there is a why to the murder. At the outset, Kennedy tells Richie that random murders are rare, that in nearly every case the dead people somehow brought murder into their lives: they hung around the wrong people or embezzled or cheated on their wives or beat them or something. Richie argues back that good people can sometimes just have bad things happen without causing it themselves, even indirectly, and Kennedy has the same sort of argument with Dina, when he tells her that he thinks she was made crazy by their mom committing suicide. "There is no why," Dina tells him, but Kennedy refuses to accept this.
I can't tell you how French resolves the argument, or even really if she does, without revealing a bit too much, because that's the larger mystery at work here: is there a why? The family, they learn, was unraveling, in part because of the financial crisis (the book is set during the recent recession, a setting that has made its way into fiction way faster than you'd imagine, marking it as what I thought it might end up being when it started: the single most significant event of modern life. If the Depression and World War II marked the "Greatest Generation," then 9/11 and the Great Recession will mark our generation, and how we respond to them will demonstrate if we can rise to greatness, or if we will instead curl up and hide from responsibility. So far, all evidence points to the latter, given that we've wiped out civil liberties, handed all the money to an elite few in society, and allowed police to become a paramilitary organization charged with enforcing a new sort of Jim Crow, a fatal sort of Jim Crow.)
Anyway, the husband had been laid off at the start of the recession and the family had started withdrawing from the neighborhood, such as it is -- and it's not much of a neighborhood, at that -- and Kennedy and Richie wonder whether that might have set someone off. At one point in the investigation, Kennedy almost loses it seeking a motive -- the why -- and French, at the end reveals why it's so important to him that there be a why, that there be rules which govern us.
Is there a why? And if so, is why ever so simple? We watch the news and say that people killed others because of guns, because of drugs, because of poverty. Wars start because 'they hate us.' We seek cause and effect, cause and effect, cause and effect. And we probably blame ourselves for being the cause even as we feel we are the effects of other causes.
I guess you have to have a problem/
If you want to invent a contraption
Sang Jack White on Effect & Cause:
Well in every complicated situation
There's a human relation
Making sense of it all
Take a whole lot of concentration
Well you can blame the baby
For her pregnant ma
And if there's one of these unavoidable laws
It's that you can't just take the effect and make it the cause
But what is the cause? I've told people they can't blame themselves if their kids did something they didn't like. It doesn't make you a failure as a parent. President Obama barely knew his father, and yet credits him with instilling in his son a desire to be a great dad -- because he wasn't? Would Obama have been a great dad even if his own father had been around? I have two brothers and a sister, who are nothing like me and who I don't speak to. We were all raised by the same parents in the same household with the same rules. We turned out wildly different -- or at least I am wildly different from them. What's the cause? What's the effect? What is the why?
As I tore through the final 10% of French's book, I was reading all the why she put in there, or lack of it, and later, after I was done, I was thinking, over and over, about the why, about whether we end up in a given place because of a set of effects, or whether we only think we are in that place because we lay a pattern over it after the fact, fitting our narrative into the way the pieces have ended up. Well if I'd been a better father, if I'd worked harder at this, if I'd taken that class, if I'd never left that job. We see fate where there might be random chance, and chance where we have been destined to do something.
There are definite causes, and definite effects. There is a reason that I am adamant -- that I in part left my old, terrible, law firm -- that people need a lawyer and that the lawyer should find a way to make it affordable for those people. That reason is my own, and is private, but it is a reason nonetheless, and it contributed to my dissatisfaction with my own firm and has made me, at times, unpopular with those around me.
But for the big questions, for who am I really and why am I like this and why are they like this, the why is often unknowable, if it exists. People around the world continue to blame vaccines for autism, for example, because they don't want to believe that there could be something that so drastically, and unknowably, alters their children and we wouldn't know what it is or why it does that. So they seek superficial answers, impose a gridwork over an impossible Rorschach blob and say there, that's it that's the why. There is no other childhood condition to which people attach essentially magical thinking, even though we don't know why of other childhood problems. We know what causes them but not why it happens. There have always been mysterious things that happen, to our children, to us, and we have always engaged in witchhunts and prayers to assess them and have them make sense. In that, we are not so far removed from our ancient ancestors. They believed droughts were caused by offending the gods. We tell mothers they didn't love their children the right way, and that is why the children hurt themselves.
Off and on, for the last year or two, I've thought I knew the why, for those things I needed to know about, or wondered about. Then I tried to tell myself I didn't care, that there was no why, that it didn't matter. But of course it matters. Why is the difference between a universe that makes sense and a universe that can tear us apart in an instant. Why is storybook romance, is eventual cures, is society improving itself and everyone who goes to college getting a good job with rewarding work and decent pay. But why is also laying blame. Why is the cause not just of happiness, but of pain. Why is a finger pointed at someone, often a finger trembling with rage or sorrow or fear.
Eventually, last night, it was time to go to sleep. It was nearly 11 p.m., and I'd been laying in bed watching TV without paying attention to it for a long time while I kicked around thoughts about this book, and about why, and about how my life led me to this point at this place with these people. I turned on my side. Everyone else in the house was asleep. I listened the dull mumble of the tv behind me, heard the water softener two floors down kicking on. The air conditioner in the window buzzed a little. You can drive yourself nuts, wondering why. You can lie awake for hours, you can drive around in the middle of the night thinking, you can stare distractedly into space when you were supposed to be washing the dishes. I fell asleep, thinking -- as I have often before -- that we can only know why, really, after everything happens. Once everything is over, we can see if the pieces really do fit together, and if they don't, we can try to make sense of the picture anyway. You can't know why until later on.
Maybe that's what Heaven is. Maybe instead of clouds and harps and palaces and golden gates, Heaven is knowing why.
Or maybe, instead, Heaven is no longer caring about why.