You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled bright enough to scald you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.
That was when I really believed it, not as a detectives solid theory but right in my gut: a teenage girl could have killed Chris Harper. Had killed him.
Detective Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly Mackey, has some bad luck where murder is concerned. We met her in Tana French‘s third Dublin Murder Squad book, Faithful Place. In that story, Holly, along with Detective Mackey and the rest of his family, seemed inescapably weaved into the investigation of a long-forgotten disappearance.
In French’s new novel, The Secret Place, it’s six years later, and Holly has sprouted up into a young woman, all sarcasm and hair-tosses. Once again, a murder investigation has found her. She comes to Detective Stephen Moran, also from Faithful Place, with a note she found on an anonymous board at her posh boarding school, Kilda’s. The note claims to know who killed a boy from a neighboring school on Kilda’s grounds last year. Last year, the investigation went nowhere. This year, Moran is determined to solve the case and move up to Murder from what he sees as the dead end of Cold Cases. Detective Antoinette Conway, a door-slamming, in-your-face woman in a Murder Squad that likes its women flirty and accommodating, agrees to let Moran ride along and talk to the girls. Holly came to him, after all.
Thus the setup for a day of teenage interrogations, alternated with flashbacks of Holly and her girl gang the previous year, leading up to the murder.
At first glance, The Secret Place seems to be a clash of two starkly different worlds. Placing these brash and calculating detectives into the dreamy, fantastical boarding school world of adolescent girls, with all their wide-eyed, moon-struck whimsy and best-friends-forever chatter, Tana French might as well have set this book on another planet. Moran and Conway could be wearing space suits as they walk through the bizarre landscape of the boarding school’s halls, listening to the choir’s melodies echoing from down a corridor, watching nuns walk slowly over the well-manicured lawns.
But slowly, slowly, French lets us see that perhaps these boarders are the detectives perfect match. The girls are compared to carnivorous jungle beasts multiple times–jaguars with sharp, ripping claws, “big cats released for the night.” At one point Detective Moran says he knows he’s outnumbered by some of them as if he saw three guys with “a bad walk roll around the corner and pick up the pace towards you.” These girls are giggling ugg-wearing thugs; they’re long-haired, lip-glossed, yes, but they’re manipulative, and maybe murderers.
Or are they? Moran seems to ebb back and forth in his views just as the girls seem to gain and lose their confidence. One moment these are young women in total control, and the next moment they’re kids, panicking, hysterical, too young and so easily manipulated. It seems like the detectives aren’t sure if it is naivety tripping them up, or its opposite.
As the long day passes, the girls are kept in seclusion from the rest of the school, made available for the detectives to interview in groups and individually, kept quarantined to prevent their teenage gossip and outbreaks of hysteria from catching. A less talented author could have made this feel tedious, as the single day of investigation alternates each chapter with a flashback to Holly and her three best friends before the murder took place.
But this isn’t a less talented author, this is Tana French, who takes the police procedural out of the squad room and finds it wherever she chooses–the darkness of the woods or the isolation of an abandoned construction site. She finds it here, too, amidst the art projects of teenage girls and the glades they find magic in at night. The flashbacks give the reader a chance to compare conclusions formed by the detectives in each interview with what actually plays out, what behaviors each girl reveals contrasted with her actual role in friendships and crimes, in an amateur sleuth’s ideal setup. Layers upon layers of motive and manipulation are peeled back in a way that seems possible only amongst teenage girls or incredibly dysfunctional families, where so much of what matters is how others behave.
And for those that are concerned (no spoiler alert needed), this is a Tana French novel that answers the question “Whodunnit?” clearly, so you won’t feel left cheated if you are looking for a solve. But don’t expect to understand everything that happens on the grounds of Kilda’s, as so much of the magic of adolescence isn’t meant for the outside world.
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