Written by Tana French — Famed for her mastery of suspense and character, Tana French is one of those crime novelists admired by her peers as much as her readers. The Irish author’s fifth novel arrives with blurbs from Stephen King, Kate Mosse and Sophie Hannah. A rich, absorbing read that goes deeper than your average mystery novel, it also requires a certain investment on the part of the reader. The Secret Place is a big book that’s brimming with intricate plotting and psychological intrigue. It will take over your life for at least several days – but it’s worth the effort.
The ‘secret place’ of the title is a noticeboard tucked away in St Kilda’s, an exclusive girls’ school on the outskirts of Dublin where pupils are overseen by authoritarian nuns and the headteacher takes pride in the elitist education for sale. With its teenage gossip, warring cliques and raging hormones, St Kilda’s is a combustible atmosphere, so the secret place enables girls to let off steam without naming any names (boarders aren’t allowed on the internet).
But amidst the unruly mess of anonymous messages and creative angst on the noticeboard relating to boys, siblings and the annoying habits of roommates, one card with lettering like a ransom note has dramatic consequences. “I know who killed him”, says the message alongside a photo of Chris Harper, once a pupil at neighbouring boys’ school Colm’s. The 16-year-old was found dead with a savage blow to the head a year earlier in the grounds of St Kilda’s.
His killer was never caught and the message soon brings a pair of Irish detectives to the school. The tough, unpopular female cop Antoinette Conway failed to crack the case a year earlier. She forms a new partnership with Stephen Moran, who’s been stuck in cold cases but gets his chance after the daughter of a colleague hands him the vital new evidence. There’s plenty at stake for the Dublin detectives, who realise their superiors will soon take over unless they can solve the case quickly.
Moran narrates the present-day investigation in the school, which takes place over the course of a single day, while alternate chapters feature a tight-knit group of teenagers in the months building up to the murder. It’s a technique that creates a slow-burning suspense. French counts us down to the killing during the girls’ chapters set in the past, while various clues and teenage enmities emerge one year after the murder as the detectives dig deeper. “If I’ve learned one thing today, it’s that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods,” Moran tells his colleague.
The Secret Place has elements of the traditional mystery: a single crime in a confined community, a cast of suspects and the outsider, working-class detectives entering a rarefied world. However, French’s novel is far more than the basic whodunnit the plot might suggest. She makes you care why it happened by capturing the unique intensity of shared experience and hidden codes between teenage girls (Megan Abbott’s excellent novel The Fever recently pulled off the same trick). During expulsion-risking moonlit escapades in the school grounds, the four girls at the heart of this story bond over their united stand against the expectations of typical teenage life. It’s a decision that makes them enemies, including St Kilda’s queen bee Joanne Heffernan.
In Books to Die For, French named Donna Tartt’s literary mystery The Secret History as the book that’s most influenced her crime career. The students in The Secret Place are younger and not the classical scholars of Tartt’s novel, but it’s the same idea. An idyllic setting (“madrigals and balustrades” as Moran describes it) and a cloistered group so absorbed in their own existence that the real world gets edged out.
The power of these schoolgirl emotions even results in instances of ghosts and telekinesis at St Kilda’s. “The energy,” says an awed Moran as he reads through the life-and-death text messages involved in the case. The Secret Place makes teenage life – and death – compelling and French has staked her claim to genre greatness with this ambitious novel.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars