I grew up on the Isle of Man. Small communities are tight but seaside communities, those are rock solid. There’s a sense of the entire place being locked in a permanent staredown with the elements, a bloodymindedness that unites people even when they can’t stand one another. You may hate your neighbour but your neighbour has to deal with the sea, the same as you do. It becomes part of you, a lens that drops across how you see the world. Some people have friends whose parents work in a bank. I had friends whose parents owned trawler fleets. The sea gives you everything you can handle and more, and it takes far more than it ever should. Each generation at my school lost someone, often through illness or accident but, every now and then, to the ocean. Even now, two of my school friends are coast guards and a good chunk of the staff of my old school are on-call lifeboatmen.
You get used to living next to death. The death itself? That you never get used to.
That’s the genius of Broadchurch; the way the series wrapped the rural, cheerily belligerent, world of a small seaside town around an event as defining as it is horrific. The show was a machine tooled piece of precision drama, slotting together in the last couple of episodes to create a story that was as emotionally brave as it was honest. It’s an extraordinary piece of TV and translating it across to prose was always going to be a huge challenge.
Erin Kelly is more than up to that challenge.
Kelly takes a three pronged approach to the story that pays off constantly. Firstly, she’s never afraid to compress, or skip, scenes. Nothing’s left out but there are several scenes that are referenced inside others rather than being explicitly played out. This keeps the whole novel not only pacy but remarkably in step with the tempo of the show. There’s a, always subtle, pay off every chapter and that combines with the gradually ratching tension of the show to make it a read that only accelerates as you head towards the conclusion.
Secondly, Kelly gets inside the characters’ heads far more explicitly than the show did. This is, in some ways, a small problem. The wonderful, spiky banter between Ellie and Hardy doesn’t flow as much here because we’re seeing inside their heads. That being said, we get a far better idea of why they act like they do. Kelly continually folds in character grace notes that replace, and often exceed, the impact of the ones that are lost in translation. Ellie in particular really benefits from this and there’s a moment in the final confrontation she has that actually improves on how the show approached it. She’s still consumed with near feral rage but there’s experience and knowledge behind it that shows that she’s far closer to Hardy in some ways than she thinks she is. It’s a smart, bleak little moment and the book is full of them.
She also uses this to give us a far more inside line on the investigation. Hardy’s relentless scepticism permeates the book and even if you know the ending, you’ll find yourself looking at several suspect the same way he does. That in turn brings out the ideological conflict to tremendous effect; Broadchurch is a close knit, gentle town. It’s also a community of liars, thugs and hypocrites that tell each other they’re a community in order to get by. Through Hardy we see both sides of the town and, in the end, are allowed to decide which one we want to live in. It’s a brave move, and one that Kelly (maybe) uses to drop subtle clues about the second series.
That’s the third way the book succeeds; it makes you work. Just as Hardy and Ellie close in on the killer, you find yourself closing in on the clues about season 2. Did we know that much about Hardy’s marriage before? What about his daughter? Why didn’t he tell anybody he’d been to the town before? It’s not just him either, the recreation of Ellie’s opening walk to work apparently holds clues to series 2 as well as setting the story up. In the hands of a lesser writer these would feel clunky and awkard but Kelly works everything into the tapestry of life in the town, shows us how it’s destroyed and ultimately, shows us how it’s all knitted back together. Or at least enough of it so the inhabitant can go on.
You get used to living next to death in seaside towns. The death? That you never get used to. But you do get past it. That’s the true strength of both the original series and Kelly’s book; the refusal to look away from any aspect of the grieving process. It’s brave, often deeply moving stuff and a worthy, and strong, adaptation of the TV show. If you’re a fan, pick this up. If you haven’t seen the show, consider starting with this. It’s that good.
Broadchurch is available to buy from The Crime Vault. Click the link to buy or read excerpts.