The Secret Place

secret placeI’ve been reading Tana French’s novels about the Dublin Murder Squad for a couple of years now, making my way through them with huge enjoyment. She writes so well, and her characters are always well-rounded, by which I mean that they are flawed and angsty like any good modern detective, but also capable of connection and joy. She’s not afraid of leaving a few loose ends, which is, I admit, an acquired taste, but I think it’s well-earned.

The Secret Place, her most recent novel, takes place at a girls’ boarding school, St. Kilda’s. A few months before the action begins, a young man, Chris Harper, from the nearby boys’ school, was murdered on the grounds of St. Kilda’s. Why was he there? Who went to meet him? The detectives thought it would be simple to find out, but the silence was total. Until now: Holly Mackey, the daughter of detective Frank Mackey, finds a postcard at The Secret Place, the school’s anonymous gossip board. The caption reads, “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.” Instead of bringing the card to her father, Holly brings it to Stephen Moran, the only other detective she knows, and the wheels are set in motion.

This book runs along two tracks: flashbacks to the months leading up to Chris Harper’s death, and the single-day investigation led by the uneasy pairing of Stephen Moran (normally working Cold Cases) and Antoinette Conway (clawing to keep a place on an unfriendly Murder Squad.) The book seesaws back and forth between past and present, between the point of view of Moran and the point of view of the four girls — Holly, Rebecca, Julia, and Selena — whose profound friendship put a boy’s life at risk.

French does a surprisingly good job recreating the intensity of teenage friendship — how much it matters to have women who will back you up no matter what, whose friendship makes the pressures of the rest of the world (parents, academics, boys, self-image, clothes, smoking, whatever) go away for a while. She understands that this is a kind of vital, natural magic, and there’s some ambiguity here about whether this is really magic or whether it’s the kind of thing the girls will later take for granted as sheer imagination. The same goes for secrets, love, ambition — what’s real and what’s fake? The adults watching the intense mix of relationships can’t tell, and sometimes neither can the girls.

One thing that affects the investigation is a deep suspicion based in class. Moran wants what these girls have: he finds it beautiful. Conway, on the other hand, distrusts all of it and wants to burn it to the ground; she trusts nothing she’s told and can’t reach out empathetically to any of the girls. This makes it impossible for her to imagine trust among the girls — the depth of which is the basis not only for their wild, happy, free friendship, but also for the murder.

I have to admit that I was deeply annoyed by the voice of the teenagers in this book. (“Excuse me? Hello? I don’t think so? She’s such a fat cow!” and so on.) It may be absolutely realistic, but oh, how it grated on my nerves, especially since it was more than half of the book. What I wouldn’t have given for some unrealistic, adult-ish teen dialogue! I know, I know, way harsh, Tai.

Still, even if this isn’t my favorite of French’s books — even if it was a bit slow-paced and a bit unlikely — it’s head and shoulders above a lot of what’s out there. French is so good at pinpointing relationships — the up-and-down love and loneliness and tug on the heart that go into creating something new. I look forward to her new book (out in August!) and I do recommend the whole series.

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9 Responses to The Secret Place

  1. Deb says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of French’s novels, but I hope this will be her only foray into the world of teen girls (well, at least where the book is completely immersed in the world if teen girls). Perhaps because it’s been almost 40 years since I was last a teenager or perhaps because the world French creates seems far too intense for what I’ve observed of teen friendships among my own daughters and their friends, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I hope French will focus on adults (again) in her next books.

    • Jenny says:

      For me, it wasn’t the intensity of the friendships — that seemed realistic enough. For me, it was the pacing. The entire first present-tense half of the book, or maybe even more, was taken up with one interview at a time, and it seemed very slow-paced to me; I longed to get back to the flashbacks. That kind of imbalance isn’t like French, who normally does a very good job of winding the different strands of the narrative together.

  2. hlmorris85 says:

    I feel pretty much the same about The Secret Place, especially regarding the teens. I’m kind of tired of the Mackeys in general (I tend to think this one and Faithful Place are the least satisfying books in the series)– but I do love French, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Antoinette.

    • Deb says:

      Yes–I like how she has one or two characters straddling one book to the next, and it would seem obvious to have Antoinette be in the next book. My favorite French is THE LIKENESS. I agree it initially takes a suspension of disbelief, but once the story settles in, it doesn’t let up.

    • Jenny says:

      Just to say that I really enjoyed Faithful Place — I thought it was so well put together and really thought Frank Mackey’s voice was superbly done. And I didn’t think the teens were poorly done in general — the evocation of their friendship and their daily lives was very good! It was just the dialogue that niggled at me.

      • hlmorris85 says:

        oh yeah of course. When I say “my least favorite books of the series” I still think they’re better than the vast majority of what’s out there, because I really do love Tana French. But something about her focus on the Mackey family just kind of bores me a little. And I did like the teen characters in general- I just found them very exhausting.

  3. Tina says:

    This is when i stopped reading Tana French.This book did not appeal.But i loved her other books.And i mix her up with Tania Carver who is a couple writing books as do Nicci French.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, actually this is her most recent book! So you might have stopped reading her for that reason, too. But she’s coming out with a new one in August, The Trespasser. I’m looking forward to it!

  4. lailaarch says:

    Love the “Clueless” reference!

    I have GOT to read these. Everyone I know loves her, and for some inexplicable reason I’ve yet to read her. I swear I’m going to.

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