Reviewing Tana French’s The Secret Place

The fifth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, The Secret Place can be read as a stand-alone novel (which is how I read it) starring a school, two detectives, a year old murder, a really strange noticeboard (the secret place of the title), and a ghost. I absolutely loved this books, I really, really did.

Detective Stephen Moran – ambitious, clever – is determinted to move from the Cold Case unit to the Murder Squad. He gets a surprise visit from Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of colleague Frank Mackey. She is a boarder at St Kilda’s, an exclusive private girls’ school run by nuns. She has come to see Stephen because a year ago a boy from Colm’s (the male equivalent of St Kilda’s) was murdered on St Kilda’s grounds. The investigation had ground to a halt but a year later Holly had more evidence.  In St Kilda’s the teachers have created The Secret Place, a noticeboard where the students can post secrets about themselves and each other, anonymously and without repercussions. On the board was a picture of Chris Harper, the 16 year old murdered boy with the words ‘I know who killed him’ cut out of a book and stuck on.

As far as Detective Moran is concerned this is the opening he had been waiting for and he takes the evidence to Detective Antoinette Conway – she was on the case last year and really, really wants to solve it. The two of them head to St Kilda’s and the rest of the novel takes place in one day, with added flashbacks leading up to Chris’ murder. One chapter is narrated by Stephen and set in the present day, with the other is set in the past and focuses on Holly and her three friends, Julia, Rebecca, and Selena. In the present Holly and her gang as well as a rival gang consisting of Joanna, Orla, Alison, and Gemma are being interviewed by the Moran and Conway, while in the past we learn about these girls in a lot more details and a lot more about Chris too.

The headmistress (head nun?) is furious that the police are back because for her the reputation fo the school is paramount. In her view the girls who come here are not the kind of girls who would be involved with a murder, let also actually be a murderer (so let’s blame the random groundsman/person). As the novel unfolds you realise just how much she doesn’t know about the pupils in her care. The intricacies and rivalries between the groups of friends are revealed bit by bit as well as all the secrets everyone is keeping. This is a story about friendship and loyalty and when you need to break it.

Generally I am not a fan of chapters narrated by teenagers – I find that many authors turn them (especially if they are girls) into stereotypes and it just pisses me off. But the diversity and depth of the 8 pupils was such a strength of the book. French’s portrayal of friendships, fear, competition, and love rang really accurate. I can’t say for sure if it was accurate since my teenhood was so different from theirs it’s crazy, but it rang true none the less. I was also very glad that my teenhood was nothing like this too.

I loved both Conway and Moran and how they worked together, how their partnership developed even over one day. They both come from far less privileged backgrounds than anyone at St Kilda’s they both react to St Kilda’s pomp different: Conway with contempt and disgust – she doesn’t understand how the headmistress can be so naïve (neither do I frankly) while Moran sees the beauty in an establishment like this. Throughout the whole book French deals with the gender classes brilliantly – with Moran and Conway it is centred on the power teenage girls have when they know how attractive they are.

With the pupils these gender clashes play out at the Court where girls meet boys and sexting, dick pics, flirtations, bravery, and stupidity play out with lots of ‘like’, ‘um, hello’, ‘ohmygod’, and French’s excellent use of italics. What I found really fascinating that the character of Chris is told through the 8 girls. We don’t get to read much about Chris from his point of view and it is such an interesting technique employed by French. We have no idea what kind of person he was, all we know is what other people thought of him.

There was only one part of the novel which I didn’t truly understand and if you have read it or are planning on I would like to know what you think about the supernatural element. Chris’ ghost is fine, but the other elements were…unusual. I would have liked more about it or a lot less.

I read The Secret Place as quickly as I could because I was hooked but it is a long book. What kept me going was French’s excellent writing, the intricate plotting (seriously brilliant) and the depth given to each character.

The Secret Place is published by Hodder and out in paperback now. I borrowed my copy from the library, which is why in the picture is has a protective cover.

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