Mystery Review: The Secret Place, Tana French (2014)


“If I've learned one thing today, it's that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods." - The Secret Place, Tana French

I'll start frankly and say that The Secret Place is not my favorite of French's books, although it stars one of my favorite of her detectives - Stephen Moran. The premise itself is a good one - a year before the novel starts, a boy at an exclusive boarding school, Chris Harper, was murdered in the garden of the girls' school next door, a pitchfork through him and four flowers on his body. The case remains frustratingly unsolved, until Holly Mackey (daughter of Detective Frank Mackey and last seen in Faithful Place), now a sixteen-year-old boarder at the site of the crime, St. Kilda's, comes to Moran with a photo of Chris and a note that she has found pinned up on a board at school. "I know who killed him," the note says.


Moran, working in Cold Cases, gets the call up to the Murder Squad to work with Antoinette Conway, the prickly detective who originally worked on Chris's case. Over the course of a day, they plunge back into the investigation at St. Kilda's, interviewing two competing groups of four best friends, one squad of fairly typically teenage mean girls, the other - Holly's group - a bit more puzzling. The novel shifts back and forth between Conway and Moran's investigation and the year leading up to Chris's murder, scenes that count down the days and give the context and backstory to explain why Chris ended up dead.


While French's writing sizzles, as always, I thought this book struggled with pace and especially with editing. The forays into the year before Chris's murder sometimes felt like they took ages to get through, although French does nail many aspects of what being a teenager felt like during those ages. There's also strong, barely believable supernatural element to the plot, that I wished French had left out. While it is intended to serve primarily as metaphor to the bond between best friends and teenagers' ability to believe in the mystical and otherworldly, it seemed like filler in the already-long backflashes.


In my view, this book is far stronger in the sections when Conway and Moran are interviewing the girls and investigating during their one day at St. Kilda's, and I would have happily had more of their interactions and less backstory. Watching these two friendless characters start to become partners in detection over the course of a day - although both are a little wary and uncertain of the other's intentions - was the real joy of this book.


Three and a half stars, with the usual style points for French. Pairs well with your favorite mixed bag of sweets from childhood. (It's a toss-up here with peanut butter M&Ms or Twizzlers...such difficult life choices.)


(And for two different takes on the novel- there was a great back and forth here on The Millions. Reading the comments, I can tell my rankings of French are going to be a bit different than most of the rankings their readers have... but onto next week, when I'll cover The Trespasser! I won't give anything away, except that you should really, really read it.)


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