The Secret Place
A funny thing happened as I made my way through THE SECRET PLACE. Being the fifth installment in Tana French’s wonderful Dublin Murder Squad series, I had expected something a bit different from what I initially got. The other volumes, to varying degrees, have been built upon deep and intricate mysteries set decades in the past that haunt the present. That’s not what occurs here, at least at first. Once I got over worrying about what the book isn’t, I became fully aware of how riveting and quietly enthralling a story it is.
“The Secret Place” of the title is a bulletin board set up in the hallway of St. Kilda’s School, a posh boarding academy for girls. It operates as a kind of physical “Post Secret,” where the students can anonymously place notes that air secrets and grievances. The school administration also quietly monitors the board as a means of keeping an eye on what is bubbling under the surface of their adolescent charges. One of these posts finds itself on the desk of Detective Stephen Moran, an officer with the Dublin Cold Case Squad. The postcard bears the picture of Chris Harper, a 16-year-old from a neighboring boy’s academy who was found murdered on the grounds of St. Kilda’s a year ago. The anonymous message on the picture states, “I know who killed him”; the police do not.
"[M]ystery lovers of all stripes will find that French once again has created a classic, riveting whodunit that keeps one guessing throughout."
The medium for this message, if you will, is brought to Moran by a St. Kilda’s student named Holly Mackey, the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey. Holly and Moran had met several years before when Moran was investigating another case, and he is the only law enforcement officer she trusts. Moran is unsatisfied career-wise and sees the postcard as an opportunity to move out of his present position and onto the Dublin Murder Squad. He takes the card to Detective Antoinette Conway, who is in charge of the investigation into Harper’s death.
Conway has a chip on her shoulder the size of Galway and is still seething over the fact that her inquiry into Harper’s murder has come to a standstill. She reluctantly takes Moran on as a partner, and together they return to St. Kilda’s to begin a fresh investigation, focusing on who may have posted the anonymous note and why. Their inquiries zero in on two different cliques of girls, and while the duo painstakingly interviews each member of each group, the narrative alternates between their efforts in the present --- over the course of an extremely long day --- and the months leading up to Harper’s murder on the school grounds.
But while the primary focus of the book is on the investigation, the meat of the story concerns itself with the relationships of the adolescent students, particularly within and between the two cliques. Quite a bit of the story consists of dialogue and conjecture, all of which slowly and steadily reveals what the characters will do in the name of friendship, jealousy and dislike. If you’ve only witnessed the politics of adolescent girls from afar, THE SECRET PLACE is a real eye-opener.
Male readers may find THE SECRET PLACE to be a bit of rough slogging, especially compared to the other installments of the series. On the flip side, female readers, particularly those of a certain age, will flock to this book and see themselves, and others, in the characters of the high school girls whose personalities are as sharply drawn as any you are likely to encounter this year. And, of course, mystery lovers of all stripes will find that French once again has created a classic, riveting whodunit that keeps one guessing throughout.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 5, 2014