Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

[…]real isn’t what they try to tell you. Time isn’t. Grown-ups hammer down all these markers, bells schedules coffee-breaks, to stake down time so you’ll start believing it’s something small and mean, something that scrapes flake after flake off of everything you love till there’s nothing left; to stake you down so you won’t lift off and fly away, somersaulting through whirlpools of months, skimming through eddies of glittering seconds, pouring handfuls of hours over your upturned face.

I should qualify this but I won’t – this is Tana French’s best book so far! It’s just … so damned good. 

Alright, review after the jump! 

Synopsis:

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

This book brought me right back to my own highschool experience – I went to an all girl Catholic school, which was also attached to a convent, with real nuns. Though in my highschool, there were no boarders and well, I don’t remember a murder … but I was still brought back. Mostly, it’s the relationships between the girls, the way that the same-sex environment makes for deep friendships, and the little quirks of an all girl experience as well as a Catholic one. French has a real ability to pull you back and into the world she’s writing about so perfectly. Honestly, this author has such a gift!

So, this is, if you read my reviews for her other books (here, here and here), a Dublin Murder Squad mystery – so there is a murder, and some of those same characters that we covered in earlier books show up here. But this book is a departure from the previous books in a couple of ways: first, the POV character is not on the Dublin Murder Squad – he’s actually in Cold Cases, but he wants to be in Murder; second, He is not the only POV character, though he is the main one (his voice is in the first person, whereas other sections are third person and cover the girls in flashbacks over two years); and third, the whole of the present-day narrative takes place over a day, as opposed to the longer investigations of previous books. At first, I wasn’t sure I was on board with these changes, but it really ended up being just so well-written and so enthralling that I quickly became a fan. 

The mystery  itself was more or less straight forward – I had my suspicions (correct as it turned out) on who the killer was earlier on than I think was intended, though I fervently hoped I was wrong. The mystery, actually, is second string in this case – the real star of this book is the relationships –  two types in particular: the relationship between the girls at the school (both the friends and the enemies) and the relationship between our Main Character Stephen (from Faithful Place) and his temporary partner, Conway. Also, as an added bonus of awsomeness – Frank Mackey (see his appearance in The Likeness and then his main story in Faithful Place) and his progeny of greatness, his daughter Holly. Seriously – I would have read just a book on the Mackeys – they are endlessly entertaining. 

First, the relationships between the girls: there is just so much here. There is so much to being a teenaged girl, and while in an all girl school, as a teenager, everything goes from 0 to 100 in a second. The ways the girls interacted with one another – the things they shared, the understandings they had of each other, how they supported each other, hid things and lied, and went after the other – it was so well written that I found myself nodding or running off with book in hand to find The Boy to read it aloud to him. It was just so spot on. Even when Stephen is commenting on their relationships, it is spot on: all his observations are what I think of now, looking back as an adult, when I think of my own teenaged years. French managed to nail it so well it left me awe struck. 

Second, the relationship between the two cops – we haven’t had much of that in the DMS books outside of the first book (In the Woods). Let me explain: in the last three books, the POV character has been a loner – Cassie, Frank and Scorcher – they had relationships with other cops, either as superior/inferiors and the like or as lovers/familiars etc – but there weren’t any partners since the first book. Now, these two aren’t really partners – they work in different departments, and there is definitely a senior/newbie aspect to their relationship, but unlike In the Woods, this is the partnership at its beginning – before either of them have really ingrained themselves to it, and since the story only lasts a day, it gives us a unique relationship to be in the middle of, full of that pull and push of warring personalities. In a word, it is entertaining. Two words – it’s also deep. 

I definitely think this is a book you should read – it’s probably French’s most feminist book to date, and it is just so well thought out that even if you figured out who the killer was in the first half of the book, you’ll be entertained, you will need to read to the end – your eyes will be glued to it – you want to see what happens to the characters, how they react together, how they work together. It is a wonderful character driven mystery with some unexplained bits that I am still mulling over, but in no way take away from the depth of this novel. 

So go read it! I can’t recommend it enough! 

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