Tana French’s debut novel In the Woods was one of the best books I read last year. I don’t normally seek out murder mysteries so didn’t have much to compare it to within the genre, but wowza. It was eerie and tense and the woman writes with style. Yum. I’m considering inducting her into my Authors I Wish Were My Best Friends club.
French has five published books now. I keep losing my library hold on The Likeness because it comes in when I’m either out of town or don’t feel like riding the subway into Manhattan, which is 95% of the time. Rather than reading through her work chronologically as a methodical completist might do, I skipped ahead to The Secret Place, her most recent book out in 2014. This is another Dublin Murder Squad mystery with a punchy setup that had me reaching for my library card with my gimme gimme hand.
There’s this board on the third floor of St. Kilda’s, a posh public school for girls. It’s called The Secret Place because students are encouraged to write down secrets they want to share and post them up anonymously. Is this a thing at boarding schools? It sounds like an awful idea even for adults who forget what it’s like to be a teen. But it’s the perfect place for a troubled mind to open a door.
In walks through Holly, a student with a picture of Chris Harper in her hand. When she hands it to cold case detective Stephen Moran he reads the caption “I know who did it?” in cut out magazine letters and there’s no going back. The murder case is reopened.
Moran is desperate to fill a rare opening on Dublin’s Murder Squad and solving this is his ticket on. One of the detectives who led the initial investigation, Antoinette Conway, isn’t about to let Moran take this solve away from her. She takes this new evidence and allows him to accompany her to the school before someone else on the squad calls dibs.
Girls like to reveal their secrets, and they like to be secretive. The board provides the perfect balance.
We accompany Conway and Moran to the school where, despite the administrations reluctance, the two detectives proceed to interrogate. Find who wrote the note, find the killer. Their prime suspects are the students once suspected of knowing something. These girls make up two rival cliques, queen bee Joanne Heffernan and her lackies and Holly’s gang.
The structure alternates between the months leading up the Chris Harper’s murder, and a single long day of Moran and Conway’s investigation. Rather than getting to know the victim, we go back in time for a close up on how Holly and her friends changed over the past year. It began after one has a lousy experience and they all decide as a group to stop wearing makeup, dating and gushing when a boy pays them attention. The choice makes them infinitely more intriguing to themselves.
Other girls at the school call them weird, but they don’t care. They’re happy, free and daring. They begin to see their friendship as a miracle. The world feels magical and, in the weeks leading up to the murder, it is. Once they cast off boys and the silly inherent pressure to play their games, certain abilities come to them. This doesn’t go unnoticed by jealous Heffernan.
The present investigation hits a number of dead ends. Conway’s dislike of the rich girls is obvious, though in many ways she’s made the choices they played with, rejecting the notion that this is a man’s world. Like Holly and friends, she doesn’t care about being attractive or liked by men. French seems to love the push and pull of interrogation scenes, the unseen moves between good cop/ bad cop and the games they’re willing to play to find falsehoods. A dark secret is bursting to come out, but the detectives have to weed through their own biases, old grudges, girl hierarchy, loyalty, superstitions and one angry ghost.
I enjoyed this book though I think it could stand to lose some pages. Some parts I loved, like the rendering of life inside the bubble of St. Kilda’s. The magical elements weren’t necessary and made it feel a little corny. The girls were already sneaking out at night, ignoring boys and prioritizing their friendship – there’s enough power in this sort of youthful awareness. Their story didn’t need sparkly magic to validate it.
This is nothing against the quality of the book, but I’m getting tired of this trendy structure so common now in contemporary adult fiction. I’m talking about alternating every other chapter between past and present whether it’s flashbacks, diary entries or just change of tense. Or giving us two parallel story lines that inevitably collide. It’s been done so many times I’m bored of it. Bored, I tell you. Give me a well told linear story with tension and momentum and I’m happy.
I am thankful to Tana French for reminding me how glad I am to not be a teenage girl anymore.