Hello, everyone! I write this book review from the safety of my bunker in the icy Siberia that was once the United States. Florida, rest in peace. Today, I’m reviewing another Tana French novel, The Secret Place. If you read my review of her other book, The Trespasser, you might think I’m just gonna bash this book. But never fear, a rare event occurred when I read this book: my opinion on an author actually changed. When it comes to directors, I am lenient, but with authors I tend to judge harshly. The Secret Place is not a murder mystery of unparalleled quality, but it’s a capital G good book. And that’s enough to change my mind. So what’s the difference between French’s work with The Trespasser and The Secret Place? The latter isn’t trash.
Synopsis: Detective Stephen Moran is looking to join the Dublin Murder Squad after a few uninspiring years in Cold Cases. When 16-year-old Holly Mackey waltzes into his office with a notecard claiming to know who killed Chris Harper, a a student at Colm’s, he teams up with prickly detective Antoinette Conway to investigate the murder at St. Kilda’s, the local girl’s boarding school. There they narrow down the suspects to Holly and her friends, Julia, Becca, and Selena, and their rival crew, Joanne, Gemma, Allison, and Orla. Although the girls at first seem harmless, Moran and Conway soon learn that each one has their own motivations and secrets involving Chris Harper. They have one day to find Chris’ murderer or return to the Murder Squad in disgrace. But the Kilda’s girls don’t give away anything for free.
My take: The pacing of this murder mystery is unlike any similar mystery I’ve read, namely since the inciting incident, the detective work, and the discovery of the killer all takes place in one day. Most murder mysteries take place over days or weeks or even months, giving the mystery time to simmer, and allowing the author to mete out clues in a way that is satisfying enough to keep the reader engaged, but just frustrating enough to keep them turning the pages. Surprisingly, French manages to check all these boxes while paring her timeline down to one day. The reason she does this so successfully is because of the book’s dual timelines. The first takes place in the present and follows Detectives Moran and Conway as they interview the girls at St. Kildas. The second timeline follows Holly and her crew from their sophomore year of highschool to the fall after Chris’ murder. By see-sawing between these timelines, French builds suspense through the girl’s chapters as we see the development of their potentially murderous motivations, and details the growing relationship between Moran and Conway in the detective chapters. All the necessary components of a successful murder mystery are wrapped with a bow, and it clocks in under one day.
In other reviews I’ve read, most of my fellow readers preferred the detective chapters over the girls’ chapters, but I thought the girls’ were more interesting for several reasons: one, I dislike the character of Antoinette Conway, and two, the detective chapters dragged in places. The girls’ chapters kept me interested with the small nuances, the group feuds, and the strong characterization of each of the girls. Each of them seems capable of committing murder, but French never gives away the murderer. The reveal actually comes out nowhere, at a time when the book seems to be screeching to a halt, but it unfolds naturally enough that it doesn’t cause a stutter in the plot.
Like I mentioned in my other review, French is a very talented writer with a signature style. But as in The Trespasser, sometimes her sentences are so detailed and twisty that they become exhausting to read. I ended up skimming a lot of this book because the plot kept me interested, but the writing style got tedious. Another problem French ran into in this vein was her attempt to capture the “teen” dialogue. I know that us young’ins like to use some hip slang in our everyday conversation, but we still know how to speak comprehensible English and construct respectable sentences. I think French has watched too many Disney Channel shows or something because some of the girls’ conversations borders on terrible. But their overall storyline and relationship redeems them from becoming caricatures.
The Secret Place is more than a murder mystery; it’s an intimate look into the formation and almost-dissolution of impregnable female friendship. Holly, Julia, Rebecca, and Selena are all fiercely fully fleshed out characters in their own right, but together they leave a deep impression on the reader, of the lengths they’re willing to go to protect each other and the ethics of trying to keep a friendship from falling apart. The greatest threat to their friendship: boys. Watching the girls navigate the cruelty and bliss of boy-girl interactions is fascinating because it’s so relatable, but also because it’s so foreign. French does tend to generalize when it comes to the male characters, making them all handsome, rich, mean, and sex-obsessed, but she does capture the desperation of trying to fit in when your soul is struggling to stay different. I don’t usually buy the whole “high school is a vicious pit of back-stabbery” schtick, but French’s characters believe it so convincingly that I start to, too.
French likes to emphasize the “magic” of the girls’ unbreakable friendship, but she strains credibility when she gives the girls actual magic powers. That’s right, the girls develop slight telekinetic abilities that never play a role in the rest of the story. Besides the fact that it shatters the realism of the story world, it’s also a glaring red herring. I at least expected the magic to factor into the murder, but no, it never shows up. So the magic ends up being bizarre, pointless, and disappointing.
Final Consensus: The Secret Place intertwines a story of friendship with one of gruesome murder. French delves deep into the mind of teenage girls, sometimes resulting in unintended hilarity, other times producing an intricate dynamic between the girls. The pacing of the mystery is unique and the reveal of the culprit is fulfilling. French’s only missteps lie in her use of language and her introduction of magic to the story. Otherwise, The Secret Place is a chilling little thriller.