One of the great mysteries of the book world (to me, anyway) is how books get sorted into categories. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels are general fiction, but Octavia Butler’s are science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel’s zombie and contagion novel gets nominated for a National Book Award, but Stephen King still gets dismissed as just a horror novelist. And Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a literary darling, while Ruth Rendell’s novels are often noticed only by readers of crime fiction.
I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend when it first came out and liked it more than most seemed to (although I didn’t love it). People kept telling me that her debut, The Secret History, is so much better, and it certainly seemed like the kind of book I liked. It’s a crime novel in which the murderer confesses right up front and the book shows why and how the murder was done. This is one of my favorite kinds of crime novel. And that’s what The Secret History is, a very good crime novel.
I say this not to cast aspersions on crime novels (I love them!) or on The Secret History (which I enjoyed) but to express my puzzlement at why this book got so much widespread praise when really excellent taut psychological thrillers get tucked away in crime fiction, read only by fans of the genre. This plot could come straight out of a Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) novel. (Rendell, in fact, provided a blurb for The Secret History.) If Rendell wrote it, the book would be at least 100 pages shorter, which would probably improve it. (Read A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote as Barbara Vine. You’ll see what I mean.)
The Secret History is the story of a tight-knit group of classics students at a small New England college. Our narrator, Richard Papen, has transferred into the college and managed to wheedle his way into the exclusive classics program, which includes only five students and the professor Julian Morrow. We know from the beginning that somehow Richard and his classmates will end up killing another classmate, Bunny, but it takes a few hundred pages to learn why or how. As we journey to the conclusion we know is coming, we’re immersed in a world of alcohol, drugs, class consciousness, and 20-somethings’ quests for identity, put in a pressure cooker and set on high.
One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the angle on class and how much the characters’ desire to belong affected their actions. These people egg each other on toward actions that become increasingly destructive. The specific actions that lead to their first fatal error are presented as part of a pursuit of knowledge, but that’s just how they set their violence apart from what might arise at the less academically inclined bacchanals going on all over campus. When Richard breaks off from the group and goes to more typical university parties, what happens seems somehow healthier and less sordid, perhaps because it’s more honest. They’re kids, goofing around—irresponsibly but less destructively than the toxic classics coterie.
I read the book in a day and enjoyed it, but the plot did get preposterous at times. There were times when the characters’ secrecy (and lack of it) seemed not just over the top, but implausible. Some of their actions could be chalked up to being young and arrogant and under stress, but I wonder if I read more slowly and took time to think about it whether the plot might fall apart. But as I was reading, I was having too much fun watching the story come together to do anything other than shake off my reservations and just let myself be entertained.