“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
Review: THE SECRET PLACE by Tana French
Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods (2007), won the Edgar, Macavity, Barry and Anthony awards in the United States. An elegantly written police procedural, it has served as a template for her body of work to date. The Likeness (2008), Faithful Place (2010) and Broken Harbour (2012) – the latter won the Irish Book Crime Fiction and the LA Times’ Mystery/Thriller awards – have all featured murder investigations rooted in the warped psychology of small, intensely bonded groups.
Tana French, of course, gives the ‘just a little different’ advice a unique spin. Rather than a familiar protagonist or detective returning each time, French promotes a minor character from a previous novel to centre-stage. In The Secret Place (Hachette), our narrator is Detective Stephen Moran, whom we first met in Faithful Place as the ambitious young sidekick to the investigating detective, Frank Mackey.
Now stuck working in Cold Cases, Stephen sees an opportunity for advancement when Holly Mackey, Frank’s daughter, comes to him with a chilling message. A boarder at the exclusive St. Kilda’s, Holly brings Stephen a note she discovered pinned to ‘the Secret Place’, a noticeboard at St. Kilda’s where pupils can anonymously post their thoughts, desires and frustrations. ‘I know who killed him’ says the note: the ‘him’ is Christopher Harper, a popular 16-year-old from nearby St. Colm’s school, who was murdered almost a year previously.
Taking the note to Detective Antoinette Conway in Murder, Stephen inveigles his way into the investigation – a relatively easy thing to do, given that none of Conway’s colleagues want to work with her – and the pair set off to St. Kilda’s to interview the girls who might have posted the note.
What follows is a very long day’s journey into night. The story unfolds over the course of an increasingly fraught and tense twelve or so hours, with Stephen’s first-person narration of contemporary developments broken up by third-person accounts from Holly and her friends – Selena, Rebecca and Julia – that recount significant events in the year leading up to the murder of Chris Harper.
It’s a gripping tale on a number of levels, all of them concerned with the psychology of relationships. Stephen and Conway start out at loggerheads, each suspicious of the other’s motives – Conway has been tainted by her involvement in the initial murder investigation, which yielded nothing but a conviction for possession with intent to sell for one of the St. Kilda’s gardeners – but soon realise that they will need to join forces if they are to penetrate the protective shield thrown up by the fiercely protective teenage girls. The combative odd couple detectives who belatedly and begrudgingly come to respect one another is a standard trope in the crime genre, but what causes most friction between this pair is their shared rough-and-tumble upbringing on hard-knock council estates on Dublin’s Northside, an experience a long way removed from the wealthy privilege of St. Kilda’s and its leafy environs.
Where the story really scores, however, is the way in which French gets under the skin of her teenage characters. Holly, Julia et al start off as a relatively normal group of friends but quickly draw much closer, and possibly become dangerous to themselves and others (other pupils describe the quartet as witches) as their shared experiences wind so tightly around them as to bind them into a single personality. Feeling their way blind through adolescence, bewildered by the expectations – and particularly those of a sexual nature – of the big, bad world beyond the school walls, crazed by hormones and concerned only for the here and now, Holly and her friends become much more than the sum of their parts as their collective energy seeks an outlet. In its vivid account of the crackling intensity of adolescence, The Secret Place brings to mind recent novels from Megan Abbott and Kevin Power’s Bad Day in Blackrock, but also, as the title might well be alluding to, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
As always, French offers a sharp contrast between her narrative prose and her characters’ dialogue. Seen through the eyes of Stephen, who regrets not having similar educational opportunities, St. Kilda’s is rendered a fabulous and almost mythical kind of oasis. When Conway, as the pair first arrive at the school, pours scorn on its aspirational ethos, Stephen silently admires ‘[a] portico held up by slim curl-topped columns; a rooftop balustrade, pillars curved delicate as vases. Perfect, it was … every inch.’
That fragile beauty is rather undermined the way the girls speak, their conversations delivered in the mid-Atlantic ‘OMG whatevs’ hybrid that is, to French’s credit, at times irritatingly pitch-perfect. Meanwhile, the back-and-forth between Conway and Stephen is harshly abrasive, although privately Stephen craves the finer things, a different kind of world than the one he lives in: ‘I love beautiful; always have. I never saw why I should hate what I wish I had. Love it harder. Work your way closer. Clasp your hands around it tighter. Till you find a way to make it yours.’
It’s a philosophy, offered early in the story, that drops a broad hint about the motive for murder, which may well appear slight to some readers. By then, however, French has so embroiled the reader in the claustrophobically febrile world of her adolescent characters that hard-headed adult logic no longer applies – and besides, a motive for murder only ever needs to make sense to the killer. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.