I’ve been writing reviews for Reviewing the Evidence for a few years; I’ve been a fan of the website for much longer and am happy to have the chance to contribute to it. In the latest issue, I wrote about a couple of good books, including Tana French’s latest, and am reposting that review here with RTE’s permission. It’s an interesting exploration of how much pressure girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality and has a really interesting narrative structure that manages to unfold the mystery twice over. I have found novels about the fraught relationships among adolescent girls really irritating (largely because I found it irritating in real life) but French’s focus on the pressure girls feel turned out to be quite interesting.
THE SECRET PLACE
by Tana French
Viking, September 2014
Tana French has won praise for her loosely-linked Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with IN THE WOODS, which swept awards, including the Edgar. Each volume in the series has a different narrator and a different tone, though all of them feature passages that are gorgeously descriptive and protagonists who make acute observations of other characters (while sometimes failing to understand themselves).
The story begins when Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of a homicide squad detective, brings a message to Stephen Moran, an officer she met six years earlier when she was a child witness in a murder case. She’s found a card pinned to a bulletin board in the posh girls’ boarding school she attends with three close friends. The board is “the secret place,” a localized imitation of the Post Secret website, where the girls can say whatever is on their minds anonymously. The head of the school believes it gives the students an outlet for secrets they can’t otherwise share, though it also becomes a site where rumors and accusations are shared anonymously. Holly’s card bears the photo of a handsome young man who Moran recognizes. Chris Harper attended the adjoining boys’ school and had been found bludgeoned to death on the grounds of Holly’s school the previous year. Though the crime went unsolved, whoever pinned the note to the board glued cut-out letters to the card that read I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Though Moran has hopes that this lead will help him get a foot in the murder squad door and out of the professional backwater he’s in, he knows he runs a risk. The detective who handled the case, Antoinette Conway, has no patience with her male colleagues’ sexist banter and has consequently been ostracized and sabotaged. The fact that she didn’t chalk up a solve for this high-class, high-profile murder has left her in a precarious situation. If Moran aligns his fortunes with hers, he could take a tumble. As she reluctantly agrees to let him go with her to find out what they can, he begins to think she’s all too likely to kick him down the stairs herself.
The novel is told in two timeframes, skillfully intertwined. One is the 24-hour period within which Moran and Conway try to crack the case before it can be taken away from them, a ticking clock that lends to their narrative a claustrophobic sense of increasing pressure. The other is a series of scenes in the school, counting down the months and days until the murder. Though we learn a great deal about Holly and her three close friends, about Joanne, the imperious leader of a terrorized yet devoted pack, and about the hothouse culture of an elite boarding school where the students speak in a weirdly American patios, we’re solving the case along with the detectives. We also learn a lot about the pressure the girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality. The bond between Holly and her three friends, forged out of the realization that they don’t have to conform, gives them a heady sense of power that spills over into other unusual skills that seem to have be conjured up out other girls’ accusation that they are witches. Though some readers may object to these small touches of the supernatural, they signify both the four girls’ shared power in choosing their own identities and the fragile magic of adolescent friendship among girls.
As usual, there’s some brilliant writing. As the girls leave the local shopping mall, where the teens negotiate their public roles, consuming and offering themselves for consumption, one of them observes “their faces on the way home afterwards look older and strained, smeared with the scraps of leftover expressions that were pressed on too hard and won’t lift away.” French conveys the feeling of being that age very well. One of the friends remembers being told as a child “don’t be scared,” a very different message than the commanding voice she hears now. “Be scared you’re fat, be scared your books are too big and be scared they’re too small. Be scared to walk on your own, especially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. . . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.” French is very good at conjuring up the emotional maelstroms of adolescence and sharp in her observations of the roles we impose on the young.
The only drawback to this feverishly evocative writing is that, as the murder approaches in the one narrative strand and the two detectives grow desperate to solve the crime in the other, the sheer length of the book weighs it down. Trimming it by 150 pages would have let the pace twist tighter and the writing burn brighter.
Apart from that quibble, it’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play.