I have been a fan of Tana French since the debut of her first novel 2007’s In the Woods. Her 2008 novel, The Likeness proved she was not a flash in the proverbial publishing pan. Within the last few weeks I have read her last three releases and with each single one she dazzles!
French’s novels fall under the mystery genre but they are a lot more than that. She isn’t afraid to change things around even though the heart of all of her books is the Dublin Murder Squad – a fictional squad that all young Irish police aspire. These dedicated detectives are the rock stars of Dublin’s finest and each has a separate story involving how they got there. Every novel features a different detective as the first person narrative but there is always a connection from one novel to the next with minor characters in one plot becoming the headliner in the next.
The Secret Place reintroduces Holly Mackey the daughter of undercover Detective Frank Mackey who first made an appearance in French’s The Likeness, the second novel in the series and was the featured detective in A Faithful Place, French’s third book. Like her father Holly has gumption so when an unknown student places a note involving the unsolved murder of a boy from a nearby all male academy on her all-female school’s confession themed bulletin board, Holly marches it over to police headquarters and into the hands of Detective Stephen Moran.
In A Faithful Place’s storyline, Holly was prepped for court testimony by Moran. Moran’s career has been both helped and hindered by his involvement with Frank Mackey. Instead of an entry position on Murder Squad, Moran is on a dead end career track with Unsolved Cases. The card indicates that the creator of it knows who killed Chris Harper and it just may be the golden ticket Moran can use to get his foot into Murder. However first Moran needs to team up with lead Detective Antoinette Conway – a woman who cares little about joining the mostly “boy’s club” that defines Murder Squad because she is much more interested in just doing the job. She doesn’t know if she can trust Moran, but she knows she needs a “solve” for a case that got a lot of press the year before but still has no suspect…the future of her career may depend on it.
Like several of French’s novels there is an element of paranormal in The Secret Place but that does not mean that her books fall anywhere close (well, maybe Woods does) to a paranormal label. French just mentions things and lets her readers sort it out for themselves because sometimes people believe in ghosts and sometimes they believe in coincidences. For American audiences it makes the history rich of Ireland all the more mysterious.
Secret’s story revolves around a semi-mean girl situation. St. Kilda is a posh school that is made up of primarily the daughters of Dublin’s higher middle class. It has day students and boarders who typically only spend the school week in the dorms and go home for the weekends. Within this subset two rival foursomes/suitemates emerge. Both gangs in a position, and later revealed to have a motive, to see Chris Harper dead.
Unlike French’s previous novels, Secret had a running narrative about the lives of the girls sandwiched between that of Detective Moran’s observations. It is relevant to point out that Holly is thinking about studying sociology once she leaves the hollowed grounds of St. Kilda for the broader world of university. The groundwork of Chris Harper’s murder is set forth not from an abrupt act but from something akin to that of an African butterfly flapping its wings which eventually results in a Hurricane. The book examines the brief moment of a young person’s life when their friends are everything and choices have meaning only if all their friends approve. This is also the time in life where labels and lines are made in regard to sexuality – a natural crux of so many roads. French’s narrative always shines and The Secret Place did not disappoint.
“So since I am not actually interested in James Gillen feeling me up and let’s be honest I’m only even snogging him because he’s cute and I want the practice, I go, ‘Whoa, I think this is yours,’ and give him his nasty clammy hand back, right? And James, being a total gentleman, James decides the appropriate thing to do is to shove my back against the fence – like an actual shove – not a nudge or whatever – and stick his hand back to where it was. And he says something incredibly predictable along the lines of, ‘You love it, don’t act so pure, everyone knows about you,’ blah, blah, whatever. Prince Charming or what?”
The air feels chilly and searing all at once, feverish.
They’ve had it spelled out a thousand times, in cringey classes, in cringey parent talks: when to tell an adult. The idea never comes near any of their minds. This thing opening in front of them is nothing to do with those careful speeches. This mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them: this is something new. (Page 99)
I recommend The Secret Place for any fan of mysteries or just for something good to read. It started out slow but 100 pages in I was hooked. Tana French is certainly one of my favorite novelists writing at this time and her books are so good that I have to wonder why they have yet to be turned into a movie or series. I guess her audience will have to wait until the rest of the world catches up.