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.