The Secret Place by Tana French is set in a wealthy teenage girls’ boarding school in Ireland. Fifteen year old Holly (who incidentally is the daughter of detective Frank Mackey, apparently a character in previous books in the same series- I haven’t read the previous novels!) is a boarder at the school and takes a postcard she has found to Detective Moran, which features an image of murdered schoolboy Chris Harper and has written on it “I know who killed him”. Chris’ murder took place on school grounds a year ago and so Detective Antoinette Conway (who originally worked the case) re-opens the case and, as someone who has met and gained the trust of Holly before, takes Detective Moran with her too.
The novel mostly takes place over 1 (intense) day but so much happens within this time frame, and a lot of the novel involves flash backs to the months leading up to the murder and the time directly afterwards.
The reader is plunged deeper into the lives of the 8 girls who are the Detective’s main suspects, and in my opinion their typically teenage problems and worries only seem exacerbated by being at boarding school and constantly surrounded by their peers. I have to admit that some of the teenage ‘chat’ and slang got on my nerves a bit – but I am aware that this is just because I find the way teenagers talk quite annoying, to be frank: “Marcus Whiley is a douchewipe” and “God, don’t be so gay” being two examples. I can’t deny however that French really captures the spirit and language of teen girls. She also develops brilliant characters, all of whom seem to have their own secrets…
Detective Stephen Moran, whose perspective part of the novel is told from, is really likeable and even his cold, sarcastic colleague Collman ends up seeming quite agreeable. We also read the point of view of some of the girls, though these narratives are not written in the 1st person. This gives us a well-rounded, varied story that never failed to keep me entertained. French develops all the characters really well throughout and the fact that you’re never quite sure who is telling the truth or remembering events correctly adds to the mystery and intrigue!
I love the way the novel really takes its time and never feels rushed; French builds the characters and the storyline so well and I never felt impatient with it. From descriptions of in-depth teenage conversations to the deliberating of the two Detectives, the pace is fast enough to keep readers immersed in this alien (to most) world of boarding schools with their politics and wealth. It is also interesting that none of the girls’ parents appear properly in the novel, even in the flashbacks, apart from Holly’s dad, Detective Mackay. The girls often seem quite independent despite having rules and regulations to adhere to and the novel highlights the fact that anyone can be threatening, even if you don’t traditionally view young girls in this way; from Joanne’s sexual advances to the fact that one of the schoolgirls must have committed murder, they are in reality capable of a lot more than might appear.
The dynamic between Moran and Conway was really amusing to read. Moran is a laid-back, good natured guy who can speak on a level with the girls, and yet he doesn’t really seem to have any true friends. Conway, however, is very prickly, abrupt and at times downright rude. Together they truly have the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine down to a fine art! Their interactions aren’t too clichéd and seem quite realistic insofar as their working relationship slowly warms up as they spend more time together.
I have to say I don’t know exactly what the other ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels are like as I haven’t read them; from briefly researching the series afterwards it seems that the other books all focus on different detectives, but Detective Frank seems to be a popular and often revisited character. I am surprised that I hadn’t heard of this series as it’s had fantastic reviews – and I love Detective/ crime stories! I am actually really glad that I read it without knowing anything about the other series as it meant I got to appreciate it as an individual novel with no context or expectations.
Overall I felt this novel was tense, exciting and a little sad at times- and it did it all brilliantly!
I will certainly be reading the others in the series and recommending them as a book club title (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbour).
Disclaimer: An advanced copy of this book was provided by the publisher in return for an honest review