The Secret Place is the first Tana French novel I have read, but I had certainly heard a lot about her – and her reputation as a writer of superior thrillers – beforehand.
This novel made its way onto many ‘Best of 2014′ lists and certainly has an intriguing premise. The rather claustrophobic tale centres around two private schools in Dublin. A pupil from the boys’ school, St. Colm’s, has been found murdered in the grounds of St. Kilda’s, the neighbouring girls’ school. A year later, the murder remains unsolved. A postcard then appears in The Secret Place – a noticeboard in St Kilda’s where students can express their innermost thoughts and secrets anonymously.
The postcard features a photograph of the victim and a message: ‘I know who killed him.’
Ambitious detective Stephen Moran, who is keen to prove himself and get out of Cold Cases, gets pulled into the investigation alongside prickly Antoinette Conway. The action unfolds over the course of one day’s investigation within the girls’ school. The action moves back and forth from the detective’s investigation in the present day to the events leading up to and immediately following the murder.
The detectives soon home in on one particular group of friends at St. Kilda’s. Is the bond between them really so strong that one of them would resort to murder?
It is worth pointing out that, although The Secret Place is the fifth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, it works well as a standalone. Indeed, to begin with, this novel was every bit as gripping as the hype – and tantalising synopsis – suggested it would be. Then, a little way into the book, something happened that left me feeling at first bewildered and then betrayed. ‘Random’ doesn’t quite cover it. What’s more, this rather bizarre development is left entirely unexplained and largely unexplored. French does appear to want to stretch the boundaries of the crime novel, but this particular plot point just didn’t sit well in relation to the novel as a whole.
I have some other niggles. Before I started, I was concerned that, at 528 pages, this book was too long for what was essentially a ‘whodunnit’. And I was right, particular given that the killer’s identity is telegraphed pretty early on, and that many of the interview scenes with the girls were rather samey.
Which brings me onto my next point. OMG, HELLO?! Do teenage girls really, like, OMG, talk like that? Would they, OMG, really talk like that when being interviewed by the police? Like, all of them? As if they are, like, OMG, robots or whatevs? Yeah, I know, like mabes. But I felt like I was reading somebody’s impression of how teenage girls spoke, rather than reading authentic dialogue. Many of these passages just didn’t ring true.
I was also mildly irritated by the character of Antoinette Conway. I got the distinct impression we were meant to be surprised that it is the female officer who doesn’t want to make friends and play nice. But Conway is a stereotype in her own right: the Complex Female Character. It would be more progressive, surely, to have fully-realised, fleshed out female characters.
Niggles aside, there IS much to enjoy in this novel. I thought that the themes of belonging, friendship, youth and ageing were very interestingly handled, and really well-woven into the crime narrative. I particularly liked the ending where Holly, one of the young female protagonists, was contrasted with her mother. French vividly captures the intense nature of the friendships we forge in youth, then shows us, via Holly’s mother, what can happen to these bonds as we grow older.
The pairing of Conway and Moran is a very engaging one, and there are some very entertaining twists and turns in their relationship.
Ultimately, I feel The Secret Place is worth reading as it does comment on some interesting themes that aren’t often explored in crime fiction. For me, though, the actual mystery – though it promised much – was fairly transparent and drawn out. I do, however, like the fact that Tana French offers crime stories with deeper, more universal underlying themes and have already downloaded another of her novels.