Review #14: Fiction
The Secret Place by Tana French
*I received this book as an advanced reader’s copy from the Book Expo America convention in New York in May. The hardcover publication date is September 2nd, 2014.
At St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school in Dublin, a boy from the neighboring Colm’s, an all-boys boarding school, was found dead somewhere in the wide lawn surrounding the school. He had been struck in the back of the head and found with nothing on his person but four hyacinths and a condom. The killer was never found.
One year later—Holly Mackey fakes sick from classes and instead walks into Detective Stephen Moran’s office. He’s working Cold Cases, but has been waiting for his shot at Dublin Murder Squad. Holly shows him a picture of the boy who was found dead a year ago, Chris Harper, from when he was still alive, the words, “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM” cut and pasted across the image. She explains about “The Secret Place,” a board in a hall at St. Kilda’s where the girls write their secrets and pin them anonymously. This is where Holly has found the card. She had been a witness in a trial when she was younger, and Detective Moran had been working with her through it all. Because of that she thought of him when she found the card. And just like that, Detective Moran has his shot at Murder Squad.
He immediately brings the card to the murder detective that was on the Chris Harper case, Detective Conway, who is a badass, no nonsense woman. She allows Moran to continue to work with her, basically on the condition that if she ever feels he’s in her way, or not helping, etc. he gets the boot. Their working relationship plays a big role throughout, but pretty obviously enough they hit a few snags, though each is grateful for the other in the end.
They go up to the school and have to deal with a head mistress that is not too happy to see them and teenage girls who are easily spooked and manipulated. They’ve narrowed down who pinned the card on “The Secret Place” to eight girls: Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia—Holly’s group of friends and roommates at the boarding school, and a group of four others—Joanne, Gemma, Orla, and Allison—a group that is essentially the arch nemesis of Holly and her friends. The detectives figure they can find out who killed Chris by finding out who posted the card, but this proves to be as hard to figure out as it was to find the killer a year ago. They have to navigate through girls who want to get each other in trouble for the fun of it, girls who are lying to protect themselves, girls who are lying to protect their friends, and those who are being manipulated into doing someone else’s dirty work. Needless to say, it gets real complicated real fast, and the detectives are running out of time. With an angry head mistress trying to keep the girls from leaking any information about Moran and Conway showing up again to any parents, and Holly’s father, another detective who is not too happy to find his daughter caught up in this investigation, in addition to them not really getting the okay to work the case, they need weave through all the lies and figure out who did it before they lose Chris’s killer for good, and possibly their jobs.
There’s a lot of interwoven events in this story. It’s a great mystery, one that had me guessing the killer was someone else probably 3 or 4 times throughout (along with the detectives). But the great thing is that this story is not only about the mystery of who killed Chris Harper, but also why they did it, and how they got away with it (for a year at least). It’s also a heartwarming and heart-wrenching story about friendships, how they change and evolve; how they sometimes fall apart or get brought back together. It’s very deep, has many, many levels and takes you back to those teenage years when all that mattered were your friends, and the real world wasn’t a thing.
We’re also invested in Detective Moran. Will he or won’t he help with this case? Will Conway send him packing? Will he be the one to figure it out? Will Conway acknowledge his help if they figure it out together? Will they both get demoted to a desk job for the rest of their careers for not exactly going by the book in their investigation?
I love that this story was so multifaceted. I cared about everyone: the St. Kilda’s girls and their friendships, Chris Harper and who killed him and why, Detective Moran and his shot at Murder Squat, and Detective Conway and her lost case. I think French was brilliant in making that possible.
I don’t want to talk too much about plot, because I think this is one story where every little detail brings you into the story and moves you along from page one, and I don’t want to be the one to give away even a spec of evidence if you’re like me and trying to play along at home with the investigation. The one thing I will say, and this is the only area that turned me off just a bit, is that there’s a strange sub-plot that brings in some supernatural happenings. Holly’s group of friends have found a way to sneak out into the glade at night. The first night they do this, Julia tells them about a boy from Colm’s who groped her without her consent, and then and there they all make a vow to not get involved with any guys from Colm’s or anywhere else, until they’ve left St. Kilda’s. They make some sort of pack that feels like it involves more than just the four of them, somehow taking into account the moon and the mysterious, hidden location of the glade (which they have claimed as “their place” from then on, a location that gives the title a double meaning). After this happens, the girls are able to do things with their mind, they are essentially becoming telekinetic; they can turn lights on and off, make light bulbs burst, levitate objects in their hands, heat things, and spark fire, etc. Not that I’m against supernatural story lines, this one was just not fleshed out enough for me. It came up every so often, softly, just little hints of it, though it didn’t play a major part in the story. It affected a few things, but I think I would have rather seen it expanded upon exponentially and been a main focus of the story, or had it removed altogether and had another way to have certain things happen. Like I said, it was a small grievance, and really didn’t make the story worse, just made me wonder and therefore pulled me out of the narrative sometimes.
Tana French writes this from both the past and the present, alternating every other chapter. The way she sets up the story, the present is at one end of a line while the past is at the other, and each chapter brings the reader closer and closer to the middle where the answers lay. The most impressive part is that the present is told from Detective Moran’s view point, written with attention paid to the adult world, the Murder Squad world of the story, while the past is written from the POV of various girls from St. Kilda’s – mainly Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia. The way French writes, it is easy to slip back and forth from past to present as well as from adult mentality to teenage mentality. She gets the dialogue exactly right, especially with the teen sections. She includes some text talk, using the OMGs and the WTFs and the Amazeballs here and there, sometimes seriously, sometimes in a mocking sort of way, but also gives the girls’ intelligent and complex conversations and thoughts. She really captures that middle ground between childhood and adulthood and uses the dialogue perfectly to do it. She does not make them all stereotypical boarding school bratty airheads, but makes each of them their own character, well-rounded and unique.
Overall, I really liked the story. It kept me guessing and interested, and wasn’t at a break neck pace, trying to fit too many clues and twists in constantly. It was relatable from all points of view, and the writing was beautiful. Tana French has a way with words, setting scenes and creating characters and scenarios like very few authors I’ve read can do. I am looking forward to checking out the other books in her Dublin Murder Series (this is the 5th, though they do not seem to need to be read in order).
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
*Cover art from Amazon.com