Dublin detectives take on ‘The Secret Place’

Posted Monday, Sep. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The Secret Place

by Tana French

Viking, $27.95

* * * * Audiobook: Penguin Audio ($50); narrated by actors Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson.

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Holly Mackey is 16, and she’s on a mission. She wants to talk to Detective Stephen Moran and show him a card she’s found.

It’s a photo of a good-looking young man, Chris Harper, who was murdered the year before on the grounds of St. Kilda’s, the private girls’ school she attends in the suburbs of Dublin. Under the photo are the words: “I know who killed him.”

Holly’s own father is a detective, but she brings the card to Stephen, who worked with her when she was 9 and a witness to a murder. Stephen isn’t part of Dublin’s Murder Squad — he’s stuck in Cold Cases — but he’d like to be.

He takes the information to Detective Antoinette Conway, the tough-minded, rough-spoken woman who has had the case for a year but has been unable to get anywhere with it. Just as he sees this as a chance to show Murder what he can do, she sees this as an opportunity to use his connections to Holly, and the two head out to St. Kilda’s to find the killer.

The search will begin where Holly found the card: on “The Secret Place,” a board where girls are encouraged to post the innermost thoughts they want to share, but anonymously.

So begins The Secret Place, the fifth novel by Irish author and actress Tana French. All have focused on Dublin’s Murder Squad, and all have met with critical acclaim.

Moran, Holly and her father, Frank Mackey, were, in fact, characters in French’s 2010 book, Faithful Place, which takes place in that year when Holly was a witness. And while reading the books as a series, in order, would most likely add to the richness of the experience, for those readers who are diving into French’s novels for the first time, like me, this book stands alone quite well.

The narration goes back and forth between first person, in which Moran is the narrator, and third person. Moran’s narration is in the present tense and follows the events at St. Kilda’s in the course of his investigation with Conway. Dropped in between these chapters is a third-person narration used to return readers to the past, beginning about seven months before Harper’s death.

In these we follow the lives of Holly and her best friends, Julia, Selena and Rebecca. We also learn about their rival group, a foursome including Joanne, the bossy leader, and Gemma, Orla and Alison, her devoted and/or petrified followers.

It’s a great structure, providing lots of forward-moving action with intriguingly dropped clues and red herrings, as well as a plethora of detail-filled scenes that create a strong sense of place. The symmetry of this book is also beautiful — the book starts with Holly and ends with Holly in a nimble, clever way.

French is a beautiful writer. Her dialogue almost begs to be read aloud to enjoy the Irish accent. (When Conway says she is worried the guys back at Murder will hassle her about the case and about Moran, he replies, “ ‘I’ve ignored eejits before. I can do it again.’ Hoped to Jaysus the squad room would be empty whenever we walked in there. Last thing I wanted to do was pick between pissing off Conway and pissing off the Murder lads.”)

Her teen girls sound authentic. (Overheard from obnoxious Joanne at breakfast: “Hello, it was in Elle, don’t you read? It’s supposed to be totes amazeballs, and let’s face it, I mean not being mean, but you could do with an amazeballs exfoliator, couldn’t you, Orls?”) The girls are, as a whole, emotional and touchy, and they live in a bubble of a world of privilege, thinking almost exclusively about themselves. All of that rings true.

In addition, sentences are perfectly polished and crisp, like these: “The night was turning that red jumper the color of a banked fire, compressed and waiting. … I looked at Conway across that lone gallant slash of red.” “They’re eating breakfast when Holly feels the thread tug of something gone wrong, deep in the weave of the school.” “Everything slams into focus, bright colors inside sharp outlines. … The prickle of her zipper down her back is a tiny precise line. She’s looking straight into Chris’ eyes, hazel even in the dimness, but somehow she can see the hall as well and the lights aren’t signals or lost things, they’re lights and she never knew anything could be so red and so pink and so white.”

There is so much to like about this book, and yet, for me, there was also a darkness to it that made it hard to read. In fact, I had to put the book down for a few days because even though the plotline was compelling me to blaze ahead, I struggled with the hardness of the characters, especially Conway, Joanne and Julia.

While not everyone agrees that it’s important to like the central characters in a book, I prefer books where I feel that sort of connection. And in this book I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters.

One of the problems may be that French placed the two groups of four girls into the bull’s-eye as possible suspects. Even with a 450-page book, these are a lot of characters to try to develop — especially since she’s also working on Conway and Moran and their relationship.

I didn’t feel like she succeeded in giving the schoolgirls, other than Holly, richly developed characters. In fact, at one point I created a chart in the back of the book to help me try to remember who was who. Their relationships with each other, which become vital to the plotline, weren’t deeply explored either.

Luckily, it’s the plot that ultimately drives this thriller, and the last 50 pages of the book take the reader on a highly satisfying, fast-paced ride gradually revealing whodunnit and tying up loose ends, and then careening us back to the beginning. And that’s where I found myself going, returning to the first chapters with a deep appreciation for French’s plotting and structural skills and a keen desire to re-read and to revisit, with the detectives, The Secret Place.

Except this time, as I read, enjoying the action as it began to unfold again, I knew who killed him, too, and everything looked delightfully different.

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