It’s no secret that I get excited about new Tana French novels. I have been slowly doling them out to myself, using them as a special reading treat, because I have been afraid of running out of her novels. Now that I’ve finished The Secret Place, I have read absolutely every word that she’s published and can only wait for her next book, The Trespasser, due out in the fall. Tana French is such a favorite that I actually order her books in paper format, because I know even before reading them that I’m going to want to keep them in my collection forever.
The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it. If you’re not familiar with Tana French, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably working the case of a lifetime. I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood. And did I mention how Irish her novels are? French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture. Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.
Her lip pulled back. “Jesus fuck. I thought they were gonna put me through a decontamination chamber, get rid of my accent. Or throw me a cleaner’s uniform and point me at the tradesmen’s entrance. You know what the fees are? They start at eight grand a year. That’s if you’re not boarding, or taking any extracurricular activities. Choir, piano, drama. You have any of that, in school?”
“We had a football in the yard.”
Conway liked that. “One little geebag: I go into the holding room and call out her name for interview, and she goes, ‘Em, I can’t exactly go now, I’ve got my clarinet lesson in five?'” That curl rising at the corner of her mouth again. Whatever she’d said to the girl, she’d enjoyed it. “Her interview lasted an hour. Hate that.”
“The school,” I said. “Snobby and good, or just snobby?”
“I could win the Lotto, still wouldn’t send my kid there. But…” One-shouldered shrug. “Small classes. Young Scientist awards everywhere. Everyone’s got perfect teeth, no one ever gets up the duff, and all the shiny little pedigree bitches go on to college. I guess it’s good, if you’re OK with your kid turning out a snobby shite.”
I said, “Holly’s da’s a cop. A Dub. From the Liberties.”
“I know that. You think I missed that?”
One of the tropes of French’s novels that I really love is the way she pulls her protagonists from earlier books in the series, developing the character by throwing them into a first-person narrative. In The Secret Place, this character is Stephen Moran from Faithful Place. Two books ago, he was a young man at the start of his career who is pulled in as a floater on a high-profile murder case. When he stands out for his work on that case, he’s promoted to the Cold Case department. When Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of the detective of Faithful Place, comes in to him with a new piece of evidence in the year old murder of Chris Harper, a boy that was killed on the grounds of her posh boarding school, Stephen recognizes his golden opportunity. Desperate to be promoted to the Murder squad, he takes the card that Holly has given him to Antoinette Conway, the Murder detective that has failed to solve Chris Harper’s murder. He asks for a chance to work the case with her.
Ambitious, is our Stephen.
But first he must convince Conway that he’s worth keeping around. Unlike French’s other novels, The Secret Place takes place in a 24 hour time period, which serves as Stephen Moran’s trial by fire. And it is a trial by fire, as Stephen and Conway visit the luxurious grounds of St. Kilda, a boarding school for high school girls, where the headmistress makes it all too clear that she’s more concerned about the reputation of the school than bringing any kind of justice to Chris or his family. The students aren’t any better, where rival cliques of girls try to use the detectives for their own purposes. In order to solve the mystery of Chris’s murder, Stephen and Conway have to wade through their lies and rivalries.
Conway’s eyes narrowed. She turned back to Joanne, slower. Shoulders easing.
Smile. Steady sticky voice, like talking to a stupid toddler.
“Joanne. I know it’s hard for you, not being the center of attention. I know you’re only dying to throw a tantrum and scream, ‘Everybody look at me!’ But I bet if you try your very best, you can hang on for just a few more minutes. And when we’re done here, your friends can explain to you why this was important. OK?”
Joanne’s face was pure poison. She looked forty.
“Can you manage that for me?”
Joanne thumped back in her chair, rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
The circle of arena eyes, appreciative; we had a winner. Julia and Holly were both grinning. Alison looked terrified and over the moon.
As Stephen and Conway start piecing together the story as they interrogate the girls at St. Kilda’s, French uses flashbacks to follow the girls’ lives in the year prior to Chris’s death, using Holly and her friends to bring the reader along on a journey of suspense and suspicion. She does it beautifully, capturing the emotion and precariousness of teenaged life in such a precise and realistic way that it seems impossible that French is not a teenager herself. These moments sneak up on the reader, pulling us along with the events of school life at St Kilda’s until we feel like we’re one of Holly’s gang, navigating the beginnings of adulthood in a simultaneously thrilling and dangerous environment.
As the countdown to Chris’s death marches on, French reveals the privately vicious world of the teenagers, as they jockey with one another for status. Although their days are filled with classes and scheduled study time, their free hours are spent at the local shopping mall, where the boys from a nearby boys’ boarding school also hang out. As the St. Kilda’s girls try to figure out boyfriends and friendships and identity, we are filled with the knowledge that this very normal tangle of relationships will turn into a deadly combination. Each scene feels both like an opportunity to look for clues and a familiar and personal experience.
Chris sits down next to her. Selena has never been this close to him before, close enough to see the scattering of freckles along the tops of his cheekbones, the faintest shading of stubble on his chin; to smell him, spices and a thread of something wild and musky that makes her think of outside at night. He feels different from anyone she’s ever met: charged up fuller, electric and sparking with three people’s worth of life packed into his skin.
Readers of French’s other novels will also recognize the eerie role that the grounds of St. Kilda’s play in the novel. The girls are locked in at night — and for good reason — as the woods on the property come alive at night with all types of wildlife. As the girls find their way out onto the grounds at night, St Kilda’s changes from an institution to a place of mystery and power, long before Chris Harper is found dead. While some readers might find French’s tendency towards mysticism off-putting, The Secret Place gives a very concrete answer to each mystery that it presents, which was almost disappointing to this Tana French fan.
- Publisher: Viking Press
- Publish Date: September 2, 2014
- Hardcover: 452 pages
- ISBN: 9780670026326
- Language: English
- Rating: 4 of 5 stars
My other Tana French reviews: