BookBrowse Reviews The Secret Place by Tana French

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The Secret Place

A Dublin Murder Squad Novel

by Tana French

The Secret Place by Tana French X
The Secret Place by Tana French
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 464 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2015, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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The Secret Place delves into the complicated relationships between teenage girls as it solves a murder mystery involving students at an Irish boarding school.

Tana French's fifth entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series takes place on the campus of St. Kilda's, an elite girls' boarding school. A year before the start of the book, Chris Harper, a student at the neighboring boys' academy, was found murdered on Kilda's grounds; the case had gone cold until a student, Holly Mackey, brings a clue to detective Stephen Moran: a photo of the boy with the words "I know who killed him" pasted on. It had been hung on a public bulletin board the school calls "The Secret Place" (because the girls anonymously post their secrets there). Moran teams up with lead detective Antoinette Conway to ferret out the circumstances that led to the tragic death.

French does so much right here it's hard to know where to begin. First, her writing is stellar; sentence after sentence offers lush descriptions that paint exceptionally vivid images for her readers:

On the first Sunday afternoon of September, the boarders come back to St. Kilda's. They come under a sky whose clean-stripped blue could still belong to summer, except for the V of birds practicing off in one corner of the picture. They come screaming triple exclamation marks and jump-hugging in the corridors that smell of dreamy summer emptiness and fresh paint; they come with peeling tans and holiday stories, new haircuts and new-grown breasts that make them look strange and aloof, at first, even to their best friends.

Also remarkable is the author's ability to write believable characters that fit together marvelously well. The mystery revolves around eight teenage girls in two separate cliques (the super-cool, super-bitchy princesses and the very uncool, don't-care-what-anyone-thinks-of-us iconoclasts). Writing realistic teenagers is a challenge for even the most talented author. Not only does French accomplish this perfectly but she establishes a separate personality for each, all completely convincing. Additionally, the interaction between the individual members of the cliques and the dynamics between the two groups is so authentic that one wonders if French snuck a tape recorder into a girls' school to research the novel. Also outstanding is the interaction between Moran and Conway (if this were a movie or television show one would say they have great "chemistry.").

I'm a big fan of observing how an author chooses to construct a story. Here the action is relayed in alternating chapters, one part narrated in real time by Moran as he and Conway conduct their investigation, and the other, a third-person account of the school year that culminated in Chris's death. I loved watching these two plots converge; they start out not really having much to do with each other, but by the end of the book the discoveries are occurring in parallel with the event leading up to the murder. It's a relatively unusual technique, and I've certainly never seen it done better; the way the author lays out the storyline is nothing short of brilliant.

Interestingly, the plot doesn't depend on the discovery of physical clues; revelations come as Moran in particular builds a rapport with the girls. This, too, works very well, but the result is that the book is very conversational and not action-based; it's definitely a cerebral murder mystery, more geared toward readers who enjoy a slow unraveling of the plot than to those who prefer car chases or shoot-outs.

There are two elements that I found somewhat less than perfect. First, French allows the novel to drift into the supernatural, an aspect I thought was unnecessary and unconvincing (I think I might have groaned aloud when the novel went there). I also wasn't a fan of the book's ending; French seems to be trying to make the point that the friendships one forms in school are special and fleeting, but at the same time they change you even if you never see your schoolmate again. Unfortunately she adds a lengthy chapter near the end of the book to unnecessarily reinforce this point, and it made the conclusion feel overly drawn out.

Although The Secret Place is the fifth in the series and Holly Mackey and Stephan Moran appear in French's Faithful Place, the author doesn't maintain the same primary protagonist throughout her novels; consequently this book stands alone very well and it's not necessary to read others in the series as background. It is a very entertaining read that is certain to appeal to French's fans as well as to those who simply love a good mystery.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2014, and has been updated for the September 2015 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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