Title: The Secret Place
Publication Date: 9 April 2015
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Rating: 4.5 stars
Detective Stephen Moran hasn’t seen Holly Mackey since she was a nine-year-old witness to the events of Faithful Place. Now she’s sixteen and she’s shown up outside his squad room, with a photograph and a story.
Even in her exclusive boarding school, in the graceful golden world that Stephen has always longed for, bad things happen and people have secrets. The previous year, Christopher Harper, from the neighbouring boys’ school, was found murdered on the grounds. And today, in the Secret Place – the school noticeboard where girls can pin up their secrets anonymously – Holly found the card.
Solving this case could take Stephen onto the Murder squad. But to get it solved, he will have to work with Detective Antoinette Conway – tough, prickly, an outsider, everything Stephen doesn’t want in a partner. And he will have to find a way into the strange, charged, mysterious world that Holly and her three closest friends inhabit and disentangle the truth from their knot of secrets, even as he starts to suspect that the truth might be something he doesn’t want to hear.
The Secret Place is my first of Tana French’s books and it was not a disappointment! Tana French has written a chilling and complex crime-thriller. It is the fifth book in the ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series.
The crime in question occurred a year earlier, when a boy from a prestigious all-boys boarding school in Dublin is found dead on the grounds of the neighbouring all-girls boarding school, St Kilda’s. The investigation has hit a wall when Holly Mackey (the teenage daughter of a detective featured in one of the earlier Dublin Murder Squad books) visits Detective Stephen Moran with a photograph found on the school’s anonymous message board with the words “I know who killed him”.
Detective Moran, keen to progress in the department, asks to be a part of the investigation and is partnered up with unfriendly lone-wolf homicide detective Antoinette Conway. Being a currently unsolved case, both of their careers will be helped if they manage to identify the murderer.
The tale is set almost entirely within the grounds of the girls’ school and the immediate vicinity. It is , in essence, a book of two halves – a twin narrative between the current day investigation and the events that led to the crime a year earlier.
The background story tells the tale of the friendship between 4 teenage girls: Holly, Rebecca, Selena and Julia, in the year leading up to the murder. It tells of the usual teen angst, rivalries between different friendship groups, budding romances and, unexpectedly, a little touch of the supernatural/occult. Personally, I wasn’t overly keen on the supernatural element and I didn’t see that the book really needed that addition, however it does add some weight to the detectives use of superstition and mass-hysteria at a later stage in the story. The author leaves it to the reader to determine whether we accept what we are told or whether we consider it to be the imaginings from young, impressionable minds.
French paints a disturbing picture of the darker and more intense side of teenage friendships. The story drags you in to the complex and obsessive relationship that has developed between the four girls in question. They are inseparable and immersed in their own world, free from the usual shadow of parental control. Their time at boarding school is coming to an end and they have started to consider the consequences of moving on to the next stage in their lives (i.e. university), a move which will undoubtedly force them all apart and onto their own individual paths. It is this thought of being separated which leads to tensions and a shift within the friendship group.
I felt the characterisation to be a particularly strong part of the book. The girls are that uniquely teenage mix of part adult, part child. They have the attitude and language reminiscent of all teenage girls, along with fairly strong and judgmental views on others outside of their own friendship group. We read about the girls being at war with another girls in their year, in that subtle, spiteful way that teenage girls have. We witness their conscious thought pattern to purposefully develop themselves to be seen as a cooler, edgier group and therefore allow them to feel superior to the ‘popular’ girls. The characters are very well-thought out and scarily accurate when compared to my own experience of teenage years. The girls are, on the whole, fairly unlikeable (as with a lot of adolescent girls!), however they are believable and realistic – albeit possibly slightly exaggerated for the purpose of the story.
A point that I particularly liked was that the author varied the attitudes of the girls towards the detectives, dependant on the gender of the detective questioning them. Towards Moran, the male detective, the girls tested out their newly-found feminine charms in an attempt to manipulate the detective to their will. On the flip side, they appeared to show more wariness and respect to the female detective, Conway, and made little attempt to manipulate or charm her in the same fashion.
I found the story to be quite thought-provoking. As the background story moves forward, the reader gains more of an understanding as to the bond between the girls and the complex motivations which each girl holds that could have led each one of them to have committed the crime.
The Secret Place is not a simple whodunit but rather is an exploration as to the motivation(s) behind a terrible crime and the darkness that can invade intense friendships.
The Washington Post has apparently referred to Tana French as “one of the most talented crime writers alive” and I really can’t disagree with that sentiment. The Secret Place is a brilliantly dark and well-written story that truly left me unable to tear my eyes away from the page. I will certainly be looking through her back catalogue for future book choices!
About the Author
Tana French grew up in Ireland, Italy, the US and Malawi, and has lived in Dublin since 1990. She trained as a professional actress at Trinity College, Dublin, and has worked in theatre, film and voiceover.