I’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.