Following in the footsteps of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Tana French mines the dangerous, beautiful territory of teenage girls—their secrets and their blind loyalty—in her latest novel, The Secret Place. Like her four other Dublin Murder Squad books, The Secret Place is brilliantly plotted with twists and turns, but also like the other books, the real reason to read it is its uncanny way of plumbing the darkest depths of the human soul.
In all her novels, French is interested in unraveling the mysteries of how the past makes us. The first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness, were noteworthy for their memorably poetic style. Although they were suspenseful procedurals, they also tapped into nostalgia and childhood wounds. The lead characters were good at their jobs, but young. The lead characters of Faithful Place and Broken Harbor are more hardboiled, experienced detectives and their voices reflect that. French abandoned the poetry in favor of slower character studies and more empirical observations.
Perhaps because of her acting background, French has a knack for creating layered, multi-dimensional characters and distinctive voices that make each of her novels an event. The Secret Place is no exception, and here, too, French’s poetic tendencies return.
A car has the top down “to dragnet all the sunshine it can get, in the sudden explosion of summer that could be gone tomorrow” and one of the girls makes “a gritted noise of pure fury, hands starfished rigid.” But the poetic flourishes are less nostalgic, and instead suit an atmosphere of dark teenage secrecy.
In the novel, a handsome teenage boy, Chris Harper, was murdered a year ago on the grounds of St. Kilda’s, a girls’ boarding school. The Dublin Murder Squad investigated the case, but it was closed for a year without being solved. All of the girls claimed they knew nothing—not why Chris was on the grounds of the girls’ school that night or who killed him.
Detective Stephan Moran has been working Cold Cases. When 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him a photo of Chris Harper with a caption that says “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM”, the detective sees his opportunity to join Dublin’s Murder Squad. The card was pinned up at “The Secret Place”, a noticeboard where the girls of St. Kilda’s can pin up secrets anonymously to let off steam.
Stephen brings the card to Detective Antoinette Conway, known as a humorless ballbuster by the other officers on the Murder Squad, whose earlier investigation came up empty-handed. The two detectives visit St. Kilda’s for the day in order to investigate who sent the card and who murdered Chris Harper. They interview the girls, including Holly’s group of four friends and a rival clique. Every clue leads back to these two groups.
Unlike the other novels—mostly told in a linear fashion in the present with a heavy dose of flashbacks into a detective’s past, The Secret Place is told from two separate perspectives and time frames. The story begins with Holly hanging out with her friends, Julia, Selena and Becca on a merry-go-round just before the school year when Chris was killed. The chapters alternate between the friends’ past living out the events that are being investigated and Stephen’s present as he and Detective Conway investigate.
Stephen Moran and Holly Mackey were both key side characters in Tana French’s third novel, Faithful Place. The mystery in that novel involved a teenage girl, Rosie Daly, who didn’t show up to run away to England one night as planned with working class teenager Frank Mackey. Mackey left home anyway, going on to become an undercover detective in Dublin. He grew bitter, believing that Rosie had left without him.
Decades later when Frank’s marriage to Holly’s mother has failed, Rosie’s suitcase shows up and he starts to wonder if he was wrong about what happened that night. Frank’s daughter, Holly, played a role in Rosie’s murder investigation. Mackey uses Stephen, then a floater newbie, to spy on the Murder Squad’s investigation of what happened to Rosie. Unlike hotheaded maverick Frank Mackey (or the cool, rules-driven lead in Broken Harber, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy), Stephen is immensely likeable and reasonable.
If you’ve read and remember the details of Faithful Place, or if you consume a lot of our present pop culture related to lying teenage girls, it becomes a little bit easier than usual to sort out the mystery in this one. Closer to In the Woods and The Likeness than the latter two novels, The Secret Place has a less procedural feel. It has a stronger sense of psychology, especially the group psychology of teenage girls, even delving into a vaguely supernatural element (luckily, nothing hinges on this—rather, it feels like mass delusion).
French’s portrayal of the girls is almost too-close. If you are not a teenage girl, you may experience mild irritation at the heavy distribution of “awesomesauce” and “totes amazeballs”. At times, I felt as if I were plopped among precocious, risk-taking teenage girls, instead of reading a carefully constructed literary mystery novel. But there is also a beauty to the art of keen mimicry, irrespective of the subject, that French has always had. It’s a skill many literary novelists, so artful in their original turns of phrase, are lacking.
Our culture has always been fascinated with (white) teenage girls, usually depicted through the male gaze, but I’m not sure that they’ve ever been the Machiavellian anti-heroines they are almost always depicted as today. The Secret Place is an absorbing take on a hot subgenre by one of our most skillful suspense novelists.