the secret place

Review – The Secret Place by Tana French

the secret place

     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.

Tana French, The Secret Place

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.

The Secret Place by Tana French on’

If you like this book, try reading:

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Series Recapped

Tana French is one of my favorite living mystery authors, as her literary mysteries elevate the genre to a new level. Each of her new Dublin Murder Squad series grabs a character from the last and spins off, in a wildly different environment but with an equally ominous tone.

As The Secret Place was released yesterday, the fifth in the series, I’m going to devote this week to Tana French, starting with a summary of all the books today, for those starting The Secret Place and realizing they need a refresher on all the past drama, or for those hearing some of the hype surrounding The Secret Place and wondering what the Dublin Murder Squad books are all about. At the end of this week I’ll do a second post, for those eager to know more about the new book, with a more detailed The Secret Place review.

A big part of the suspense surrounding each new Dublin Murder Squad book is wondering who French will choose to write about next, as her characters rotate through the books in an addictive style—detectives touched upon in a previous book will grab an unseen wand and take their turn as protagonist as if French is having them all run a relay race. Much like real life, this shows how easy it is to put people in boxes until we take a look under their skin, and see what exactly makes them tick, or see what makes them quake in bed at night.

in the woodsWhat I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.

Characters to know: Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox.

Setting: The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises— rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle.”

In the Woods, French’s first novel and the first of the Dublin Murder Squad series, was released in 2007. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate a girl murdered in the woods. Ryan has history with these woods. When he was a boy, the woods ate up three of his friends, leaving him terrified and holding onto a tree like the world was shaking around him, wearing blood-filled sneakers.

People make so many complaints about this book—mainly its main character is unlikeable, its mysteries are left unsolved, and the story itself is too long. To those complaints, I say this is a great introduction to the world of Tana French. This isn’t a story designed to please the reader. This is a story. It has too much heart of its own to care about yours. The questions French raises are those so often overlooked in mystery novels, and they take so much of what mystery relies on and remind us why it doesn’t make sense. Detectives are, perhaps, just as flawed as the criminals they seek to catch; some mysteries, and some chunks of time, may be lost and unknowable.

the likeness“When you’re too close to people, when you spend too much time with them and love them too dearly, sometimes you can’t see them.”

Characters to know: Detectives Cassie Maddox (Rob Ryan’s partner from In the Woods) and Frank Mackey.

Setting: “Then the drive gave a little twist and opened up into a great semicircular carriage sweep, white pebbles speckled through with weeds and daisies, and I saw Whitethorn House for the first time. The photos hadn’t done it justice…Every proportion was balanced so perfectly that the house looked like it had grown there, nested in with its back to the mountains and all Wicklow dropping away rich and gentle in front of it, poised between the pale arc of the carriage sweep and the blurred dark-and-green curves of the hills like a treasure held out in a cupped palm.”

French’s second novel, The Likeness, pivots to feature Detective Cassie Maddox. A woman who looks strikingly similar to Maddox is found murdered, and legendary Detective Frank Mackey (“still in his thirties and already running undercover operations; the best Undercover agent Ireland’s ever had, people said, reckless and fearless, a tightrope artist with no net, ever”) thinks the cops would be foolish not to jump on the likeness. Mackey asks Maddox to slide back into the murdered young woman’s life, baiting the murderer. Thus, a surreal setup: Maddox becomes Lexie Madison, graduate student. She inserts herself back into Madison’s life, as if the murder was an unsuccessful attack, returning to the house she lives in with four close friends. In an echo of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the group of four friends Madison lives with is very, very close; they shift from charming to suspect and back again.

faithful place“Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game. It’s more cunning than you are, it’s faster and it’s a whole lot more ruthless. All you can do is try to keep up, know your weak spots and never stop expecting the sucker punch.”

Characters to know: Faithful Place introduces a bunch of names to remember, all surrounding Detective Frank Mackey (Cassie Maddox’s boss from The Likeness). Make note of Holly Mackey (Frank’s daughter), and Detectives Stephen Moran (a floater who works with Frank on the case) and Scorcher Kennedy (Frank’s nemesis).

Setting: “Faithful Place is two rows of eight houses, old redbricks with steps going up to the main hall door. Back in the eighties each one had three or four households, maybe more. A household was anything from Mad Johnny Malone, who had been in World War I and would show you his Ypres tattoo, through Sallie Hearne, who wasn’t exactly a hooker but had to support all those kids somehow. If you were on the dole, you got a basement flat and a Vitamin D deficiency; if someone had a job, you got at least part of the first floor; if your family had been there a few generations, you got seniority and top-floor rooms where no one walked on your head.”

Faithful Place, the third in the series, was my least favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad series thus far. This surprised me, as I was so eager for a book featuring Frank Mackey after we were introduced to his character. Mackey is called back to Faithful Place, the rough and tumble neighborhood of his youth, where his broken family still resides, when a suitcase is found in an old building. It isn’t Frank’s suitcase, but that of his high school sweetheart, Rosie. Mackey and this girl, they were in love. They were all ready to ditch Faithful Place together, get married, make it big somewhere far away from the poverty of their childhoods. And then Rosie disappeared. The discovery of the suitcase brings Mackey back to a home he’d like to forget, to an unsolved mystery which left his heart broken, and to a community which no longer trusts him.

broken harbor“I’m the least fanciful guy around, but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say: Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did. They built walls to keep back the sea. They fought the wolves for the hearth fire.”

Characters to know: Detectives Scorcher Kennedy (Frank’s nemesis from Faithful Place) and newbie Richie Curran.

Setting: “As we got deeper into the estate, the houses got sketchier, like watching a film in reverse. Pretty soon they were random collections of walls and scaffolding, with the odd gaping hole for a window; where the housefronts were missing the rooms were littered with broken ladders, lengths of pipe, rotting cement bags. Every time we turned a corner I expected to see a swarm of builders at work, but the nearest we got was a battered yellow digger in a vacant lot, listing sideways among churned-up mud and scattered mounds of dirt…No one lived here. I tried to aim us back in the general direction of the entrance, but the estate was built like one of those old hedge mazes, all cul-de-sacs and hairpin turns, and almost straightaway we were lost.”

Broken Harbor was by far my favorite book of the series, again surprising me as I hadn’t thought I’d enjoy a book focusing on Scorcher Kennedy after his introduction in Faithful Place. The concept here was bizarre, but very, very scary. Ocean View intended to be a development of premier homes, designed with childcare and a leisure center, but economic downturn left the project half-standing and abandoned, a wasteland of construction and aspirations. The Spain family purchased and moved into their home before the project ran into trouble, expecting to join a thriving community rather than an unkempt and graffitied construction site. But none of that matters now–the Spain children and their father have been found murdered, and Jenny Spain, wife and mother, is in the ICU. Scorcher Kennedy is put on the case, and finds large holes smashed into the Spain’s home’s walls, baby monitors watching corners instead of children. This family was haunted, but by what? Or whom?

the secret place“Teenage girls: you’ll never understand. I’ve got sisters. I learned to just leave it.”

Characters to know: Remember everyone from Faithful Place? Here they are. Holly Mackey (Frank Mackey’s daughter), Detective Stephen Moran (still eager to make it onto the Murder Squad), and the firecracker Detective Antoinette Conway.

Setting: “On the first Sunday afternoon of September, the boarders come back to St. Kilda’s. They come under a sky whose clean-stripped blue could still belong to summer, except for the V of birds practicing off in one corner of the picture. They come screaming triple exclamation marks and jump-hugging in corridors that smell of dreamy summer emptiness and fresh paint; they come with peeling tans and holiday stories, new haircuts and new-grown breasts that make them look strange and aloof, at first, even to their best friends. And after a while Miss McKenna’s welcome speech is over, and the tea urns and good biscuits have been packed away; the parents have done the hugs and the embarrassing last-minute warnings about homework and inhalers, a few first-years have cried; the last forgotten things have been brought back, and the sounds of cars have faded down the drive and dissolved into the outside world. All that’s left is the boarders, and the Matron and the couple of staff who drew the short straws, and the school.”

I was not expecting French’s next novel, her next police procedural, to feature a bevy of adolescent girls at a boarding school. But French always pleasantly surprises me. The Secret Place alternates between Holly Mackey’s past at St. Kilda’s, her all female boarding school, and the present, in which Detectives Moran and Conway are investigating the murder of a male student from the neighboring all-male school on St. Kilda’s grounds. This was released yesterday, and in my next post I’ll go into more detail, for those who want to know more.