Thursday, June 25, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French is one of my favorite mystery authors, having written four related but arguably stellar murder mysteries in roughly seven years (In The Woods, 2007; The Likeness, 2008; Faithful Place, 2010; Broken Harbour, 2012). Her latest book is The Secret Place (2014) and it was one of (although not the) best mystery that I read in 2014. According to the users at, they think her books have been uniformly declining in quality since her stunning debut, but I actually liked her 2012 book, Broken Harbour probably as much as her very first, the iconoclastic In The Woods.

One of the reasons why I liked Broken Harbour was the appearance of Francis (Frank) Mackey and the introduction of his junior partner Richie Curran. Plus, as in all of French's books, it is the other things in the books besides the central mystery which really make the reading experience so compelling for me. In the case of The Secret Place, however, these "extra" things in the story that are distinct from the central "whodunnit?" are both what make and unmake the novel in the end.

In The Secret Place the Dublin Murder Squad representatives are Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway. Moran was the sidekick character in Faithful Place (probably my least favorite of her books) while Conway is new to us. Frank Mackey becomes the first character to have an unprecedented 3rd showing in a Tana French mystery (albeit it is little more than a cameo since he mostly appears in his role as a father of one of the suspects, not as a detective). The central question this time is "Who killed Chris Harper?", a 16-year-old boy who was found dead on the grounds of an expensive all-girls school called St. Kilda's the year before the events that begin the book occur. That event, the appearance of the note "I know who killed him" as a caption to a picture of the dead boy in a semi-public confessional noteboard at the school called "the secret place" along with the report of this fact to Detective Moran by Frank's daughter Holly are how The Secret Place begins.

Moran sees Holly's visit as a chance to revive his stalled career from the cul-de-sac of the Cold Case and return him back into the advancement path of the Murder Squad by taking the new information to Conway, who as the only female detective on the team who has been unable to make any progress is solving a high-profile murder of a handsome, well-to-do minor in over a year has been experiencing her own career slowdown.

It's this kind of context of the murder investigation that French brings to her mysteries which generally give them that extra oomph, propelling them well above your average detective procedural.
In the case of The Secret Place, French raises the stakes even higher by making two significant structural decisions about the narrative: she splits it into two streams, one present day, and one a few months before the murder occurred, then advances both forward in time. The other, more controversial decision is to completely embed the reader in the lives, loves and lingo of the teenagers who are the primary actors in the drama that is unfolding. It is this second aspect of the book which makes The Secret Place feel special but also, ultimately, detracts from the book.

There are two cliques of girls at St. Kilda's, the one that the reader is intended to identify with (since we are given access to their internal monologues and Holly is a member) and the prototypical Mean Girls, who we are most definitely not intended to identify with. In addition to these two quartets of female teens there are also a group of teenage boys (from the neighboring all-boys school that the murdered Chris attended and was a leading personality). There are many, many examples of surly and incomprehensible teenage communication and behavior which after awhile as an adult one starts to winder if the anthropological novelty is worth the effort.

One does come to a point in the novel, like most excellent mysteries, where one realizes "oh my goodness, one of these characters that we have been introduced to and know pretty well at this point must be the murderer!" To me, that is almost always an exciting and thrilling rubicon, and yet in most cases it still does not provide me with enough information to suss out the criminal.

French's The Secret Place also has the advantage that in addition to wondering which of these teenagers is damaged enough to cave in the skull of another with a dull object, the reader has other interesting questions about what will happen to the other members of the clique, as well as the impact of the successful solution on the careers of the detectives involved. To me this proves that the authors has more than adequately fulfilled her duty of entertaining the reader.

I do have two quibbles with the book. The first quibble is, why call it The Secret Place when you already have a previously published novel using the word place? That just seems like somewhat lazy writing, in my opinion. (I would have gone with the title of The Secret or The Secret Spot or even I Know Who Killed Him as titles.) My second quibble is more specific, as it is directly related to content. For some reason the author decides to include actual supernatural activity into the story (i.e. behavior or phenomenon that can not be explained by scientific or logical observation). I can not stress enough how strongly opposed I am to including supernatural elements into mystery thrillers! Yes, I know I am reading fiction, but, to me, one of the aspects of teh genre is that things could have happened in the way that they are described, in order to give the readers a chance at figuring out the mysteries at the heart of the story. If there's some magical element involved then why couldn't the murderer be anyone and have used non-physical, inexplicable powers to complete their task? It's simply not a good idea to include this element. Happily, the supernatural element is not really a feature of the central mystery, it is really an embellishment of the interactions of the central characters (the teenage girls) in the book so in the end it did not dramatically deteriorate my enjoyment of the book. Your mileage may vary.

Title: The Secret Place.
Tana French.
Paperback: 464 pages.
 Viking Adult.
Date Published: September 2, 2014.
Date Read: September 15, 2014.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

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