In all the frenzy surrounding pub day for David Mitchell’s much anticipated The Bone Clocks, not much has been said that September 2 is also pub day for Tana French’s fifth installment in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery series, The Secret Place. I pre-ordered my copy months ago, but I was also lucky enough to snag an early copy from NetGalley for review. I should probably go ahead and admit my bias (although I guess I already did, by telling you I ordered the book early), but I loved all four of her previous books, so I was already inclined to give this one a positive review. Lucky me, because it isn’t just my bias talking—this book deserves all the positive reviews it’s receiving. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a few bumps, but nothing bad enough to distract or derail enjoyment.
Detective Stephen Moran gets a visit out of the blue from 16-year-old Holly Mackey, who has possible information about a murder at a posh girls’ boarding school (one she attends) called St. Kilda’s. Holly was still a child when Detective Moran last saw her (in Faithful Place, the third book in the series), and he believes she is bringing him information now because of a fundamental trust that was established years before. The information Holly brings him is about a murder case that was considered solved by an outcast Murder Squad detective Antoinette Conway. Detective Moran wants to help Holly, but even more, he knows that the information she has brought him gives him a shot at getting out of cold cases and onto the Murder Squad. The problem is that Detective Conway has a reputation for being difficult to work with, so she could easily take the evidence and try to solve the case on her own—and if she doesn’t, by association Detective Moran could end up the partner of the department pariah.
In the present, Holly has brought Detective Moran a postcard with a picture of Chris Harper and some anonymous hint that someone has information about what really happened. Holly swiped the card from a bulletin board at the school that the girls call The Secret Place, where they can anonymously share their innermost feelings, thoughts, and frustrations (the school’s headmistress seems to believe this will stop the girls from airing those things in more public forums on the Internet). The scenes with Detectives Moran and Conway, narrated in first person by Moran, alternate with scenes that flash back to more than a year ago at St. Kilda’s, when Chris was still alive. Those scenes are offered in limited third-person through Holly and her three best friends, Julia, Serena, and Becca. Through them, we’re also introduced to Chris and his mates (they attend the brother school to St. Kilda’s) and their St. Kilda’s rivals, another clique of four girls who make The Plastics in Mean Girls look like Little Women. (French is not simply playing on bitchy stereotypes. Instead, she’s illuminating something about what it means, sometimes, to be a girl. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”)
The alternating narratives almost make The Secret Place feel like two books. In one storyline, we see Detective Moran trying to develop a relationship with the gritty, no-nonsense Conway. The present action takes place over the course of one day, which adds to the tension the reader feels. Detective Moran really does have only one shot at Murder, or he’s likely to end up on Cold Cases for the remainder of his career. More importantly, though, is what he tells the reader about Conway, how he presents her skills, how he explains what he believes she’s gone through to get where she is, and how she’s managed to become such an outcast.
In the other storyline, the reader gets to know Holly and her friends and the events that led up to the murder. In a sort of True Detective style, the reader also gets the truth about what really happened, as opposed to what the girls are telling the cops in their present-day interviews. Suffice it to say, all the girls lie, and they a lot—to the detectives, to their teachers, to each other, and often to themselves. It’s to French’s credit that this makes them more complex and human than simple stereotypes. At the heart of everything that happens to Holly and her three friends is a pact they make to each other, one that frees them in ways they did not expect, and binds them in others.
One of the best things about French is her ear for the authentic. She loads the girls’ chapters with up-to-date references and slang, which is important because it helps to make those chapters (and the girls themselves) stand in stark contrast to who they are when they’re being interviewed by the detectives. It can be grating in the moment (a little like being at my neighborhood Starbucks when the nearby private school lets out for the afternoon), but it adds a layer to the characters the reader wouldn’t see otherwise.
I admit, my favorite parts of the book were the present-day chapters narrated by Detective Moran. While the girls’ chapters are well done, too, Moran is such a compelling character, and the interaction between Moran and Conway—wait! No spoilers! But like I said, Moran provides a view of Conway that’s an interesting reflection of what’s happening to the girls. The reader roots for them to solve the case, of course, but for them both as people.
As for the mystery, the whodunnit of it all, it’s probably the least important part of the book, which is good because it’s just the tiniest bit lame. French most definitely writes character-driven mysteries, so if you’re expecting an action-packed page-turner of a mystery, this isn’t your book. It has that (among other things) in common with another adult mystery of sorts that features teenage girls, Megan Abbott’s The Fever. What I said about that book applies here as well:
“[She] does such a terrific job of—how else to say this?—showing what it means to be a girl. Not a cheerleader, not a prom queen, but not Carrie, not an outcast. Just a girl, with all those mysterious feelings about herself and her friends, all the changes taking place physically and mentally, the safety of staying in childhood and the excitement of becoming something more, something else, and how all that shifts alliances and balances of power in relationships that once seemed so easy.”
Four out of five stars. Full disclosure: I received an early review copy from NetGalley, but also purchased the book.