The Secret Place

The Secret Place of Tana French’s fifth novel is a bulletin board at St. Kilda’s School, where girls can leave notes, sharing their secrets anonymously. When Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey from The Likeness and Faithful Place, finds a note about the murder of Chris Harper, a student at the nearby boys’ school, she brings it to Stephen Moran, the detective she got to know during Faithful Place. Stephen sees this tip as an opportunity to move from cold cases to the murder squad, so he brings it to Antoinette Conway, the detective in charge of the case. Lacking a partner, Antoinette brings Stephen with her to question the girls at the school.

This novel proceeds along two strands. There’s the present-day strand, almost all of which takes place on the day Stephen and Antoinette question the students and search the school to learn who left the note and, perhaps, who murdered Chris. The other strand takes place in the past, following the students in the months prior to the murder, revealing how the girls relate to each other and to Chris.

I’ve enjoyed all of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books immensely, so when I saw this book is on a lower tier than the other, I’m not expressing strong dissatisfaction. It’s a very good book, but it’s not on the level of Broken Harbor (my favorite so far) or The Likeness. I think French was trying to do some interesting things by juxtaposing a near real-time investigation with the flashback storyline. And the way she captures the feelings of the teenage girls at the heart of the book is truly remarkable. All the insecurities, fears, excitements, and wonder of being that age are right there, as is the interaction between individual and group identity that becomes so important at that age.

But the intersecting timelines, one in near real-time and the other over months, creates a herky-jerky sense of momentum that made it harder for me to get absorbed in this book. Plus, Stephen himself is not a very interesting character. I didn’t remember him at all from Faithful Place, although some descriptions that appear late in this book refreshed my memory. His ambition is supposed to be his driving quality, but, aside from his entirely understandable decision to try to get in on the investigation, there’s little evidence of it being such a major force in his psyche until late in the book. Until then, he looks like someone who just wants to do well. There are some great moments between him and Antoinette and Frank Mackey late in the book, but it’s not until then that he and his career started to mean much to me.

The girls of St. Kilda’s are much more interesting characters, although it took me a while to get all of them and their various relationships straight. Their story feels a little more complicated than it needed to be, and there’s are some supernatural elements involved that didn’t entirely work for me, although I could appreciate what French was trying to capture there. I’m curious what others who’ve read this book thought about that aspect of the story.

I expect I’ll get to The Trespasser by the end of the year. I’m eager to see how Antoinette works as a principal character. For most of this book, she interested me more than Stephen did.

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6 Responses to The Secret Place

  1. I’ve followed Tana French since her first book and have enjoyed them all. I really think she’s better with each book and am looking forward to the next one. It’s an interesting way to do a series.

  2. Elle says:

    My feeling about the supernatural stuff is that it’s absolutely real, but in the same way that things adults consider to be insignificant are of life-and-death importance to teenage girls. I also thought French was working in the tradition of, e.g., The Crucible, and other works about the emotional potency of young women in groups— in the scenes where the girls become hysterical at the idea of Chris’s ghost, and in the scenes where Holly and her friends sneak out at night and discover their “powers”, which stem partly from their choice to arrogate real-world power to themselves by not caring what other people think of them. For me, French integrates the way she deals with those ideas very intelligently; I’m not sure any other writer could have convinced me.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re on the right track with the supernatural elements. To me, it seemed like they were real and not real at the same time. It’s like they felt so real to the girls that they had to be. With the ghost, I thought that tension was managed really well, but I kept wanting more about the girls’ shared powers, maybe with, for example, a few more references to the suggestion that they were witches or other rumors about them. It’s a fine line to walk, though, because if there’d been much more, it would have overtaken the main story, and I wouldn’t have wanted that.

      • Elle says:

        This is why Tana French is so good! A plot point and a technical decision that would ordinarily make people fling a book across a room suddenly, in her hands, become points of serious consideration for a reader. She’s brilliant.

  3. Ruthiella says:

    Broken Harbor is my favorite thus far too.

    I thought it interesting that French broke with her usual first person narration only method her, but it didn’t take me out of the story. The supernatural did not work for me at all. I would have much preferred it had been left more ambiguous than it was. That the girls believed it, OK but allow for some part of the reader to decide if it was real or not.

    Antoinette is pretty amazing in The Trespasser. It is the tensest book in the series IMO. I totally was on a tightrope wondering if she was paranoid or justified in her suspicions. Stephan is in that one too. I think that might also be the first time where French keeps the partnership unbroken. The Trespasser, kind of like Broker Harbor, is really about loyalty. The mystery is a little besides the point.

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