The Secret Place
By Tana French
The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.
But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.
The Secret Placeis a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.
I have read all of Tana French’s novels, each of which revolves around a member of Dublin’s Murder Squad. I enjoy the psychological element of her crime novels as she plumbs the depths of the protagonist’s psyche. The case always brings up something from his or her past that must be dealt with. This concept has conflict inherently built in.
The Secret Placefelt different from French’s other novels. Yes, Detective Moran has appeared before and he is the protagonist. Seemingly. There is also Holly Mackey to contend with. She is the daughter of Detective Mackey (the lead in a prior book) and quite possibly gets more pages dedicated to her and her friends than Moran.
Also, Moran’s story, which includes an appearance by Holly to get the ball rolling, takes place in a single day. Other books have lasted weeks, as long as the case takes. This single day is broken up by flashbacks to Holly and her friends one year earlier before Chris Harper was found dead on their school’s property.
Because of the contract with Holly, I felt like I didn’t learn as much about Moran as I would have liked. He’s stuck in Cold Cases, itching for a chance at Murder. The note from Holly that will reopened a stalled murder case is his way in. We learn he appreciates beautiful things. When he arrives at Holly’s private, all-girls school, he is amazed at the building and grounds. His childhood never had anything beautiful like that. Moran doesn’t have close friends, although he dreams of a partner who would be his closest friend. Watching Holly with her tight-knit group of friends brings that yearning to light.
I appreciate learning about Moran as a detective over the course of the day. He is very aware of being a man in the presence of young girls who will be inappropriate to get attention. He also changes his demeanor based on each girl he interviews, giving them what they need in order to be more open. He builds a rapport with the sole female on the Murder Squad who was assigned the never-solved case.
I found myself looking for the connection between Moran and the case at hand. There were some similar themes – friendship, or lack thereof; beauty and innocence, or yearning for it. But there wasn’t a deeper layer to Moran that French’s other protagonists have.
Holly and her friends are an interesting bunch. They stand apart from the rest of the school because they made a pact to not care about boys, to not care about what the other girls think, to put themselves and the group first. This vow is shown in a flashback and explains the extreme loyalty the detectives see. But the vow is also fragile. Flashbacks reveal potential cracks in the armor that protects them from the world. The breakdown of the group from shortly before the murder to the present day demonstrates the fragile nature of all relationships. No one is without secrets.
And this fragility is reinforced with Moran and Detective Conway. Holly’s dad stops by for a round of questioning and is able to drive a wedge between Moran and Conway. Luckily, after some time, Moran realizes he has been played and Conway is still loyal to him. His ability to doubt so quickly shocks himself.
A third new element in The Secret Place was the role of the supernatural. I won’t reveal too much but suffice it to say, after the vow, the girls have some powers. There is a line in the book that refers to Holly eventually convincing herself none of that stuff was real back in high school. But it is presented as real. I haven’t figured out if French wants me to accept is as real because it is real or accept it because the girls accept it. I don’t think I’ll ever settle on that one unless I get the change to ask French someday.
The Secret Placedoes raise some interesting questions about friendship. What are you willing to do for your friends? How do the bonds between friends change over time? There’s a moment at the end when Holly talks to her mom who has recently caught up with a friend from high school. It helps wrap up the overarching themes. People aren’t always who you think they are. People change. Friendships are important. Friendships are fragile. Friendships take work.
I don’t begrudge French for trying something new with The Secret Place. She’s certainly earned it by now. I did miss the intense dive into one character’s mind. That single element of her writing is why I routinely recommend her books. I will continue to do so and will wait to see what she does next.