Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Secret Place by Tana French

Publish Date
Friday, 24 October 2014, 12:00AM
By Stephanie Jones

Professional ambition meets teenage subterfuge in The Secret Place, Tana French’s adroit, astonishing murder mystery set in a private Dublin girls’ school. The killing in question happened to 16-year-old Chris Harper, a student at nearby St Colm’s, which houses a similarly privileged cluster of day students and boarders. A year later, 32-year-old Detective Stephen Moran of the Cold Cases division has inherited the unsolved homicide, and with the arrival at the police precinct of Holly Mackey, a St Kilda’s student, his smouldering desire is given the opportunity for full ignition.

Holly presents Moran with an unsigned card bearing an image of the dead boy and the words, carefully cut letter by letter from a book, I know who killed him. Moran is enlivened by the chance, amid the dirty politics of the department, to join the Murder squad and reach the apex of his impressive ascension (Vice by 28, Cold Cases by 30): “Murder is a shine and a dazzle . . . a brand on your arm, like an elite army unit’s . . .”

That Holly’s father Frank is himself a senior officer (of the rule-breaking undercover variety) will become a serious complication in Moran’s work with Murder’s Antoinette Conway, a bristly operative with no interest in playing the workplace game and who faces near-universal hostility as a result.

The secret place, in this adroit, astonishing novel, has dozens of different interpretations, but the most literal is the name given by the student body to a noticeboard on which they are invited to post anything: lies, confessions, their darkest and most private thoughts. It is from this board that Holly has recovered the mysterious card, about which she claims to know nothing.

The suspects are narrowed down to two four-girl cliques, one of them Holly’s. She and her friends are regarded as weird and freakish by the members of the other, a poisonous queen bee and her cowed and servile acolytes. All eight girls are boarders, and each quartet shares a room. The queen bee, Joanne, permits no secrets and viciously punishes any deviance from her edicts, while Holly’s group has established, so each member believes, mutual and absolute trust.

The action takes place in two timeframes – the months leading up to the killing and a single claustrophobic day, over the course of which Moran and Conway embed themselves in the school and seek to expose the origin of the card, the fractures that led to its placement and the truth about the violent death. Their suspects are by turns cunning, intelligent, fearful and agonized.

I wondered while reading whether I was finding The Secret Place so compelling because of my own experience in a similar high school – so uncanny, even eerie, is the accuracy of French’s vision of that environment, and the extreme closeness and obsessive behaviour that can arise among teenage girls as they turn to each other for succour in (real and imagined) turmoil. But to savour this novel requires no identification with its setting: it is a mark of magnificent storytelling that the plot and characters are crafted with rare skill and matched by electric prose and precise, kinetic pacing.

The Secret Place, thanks to its premise of murder in cloistered academia, will likely earn comparison with Donna Tartt’s famed debut The Secret History, and is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece of feminine malice, The Robber Bride. French, with this near-perfect work, belongs in a class with both writers.

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