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Literary Fiction That Just Happens to be a Mystery
on September 2, 2014
I have read all of Tana French's books and she is on her mark with her latest, The Secret Place. It is filled with atmosphere, great characterization, language that calls for the reader not to skip even one word, and a story that keeps getting better with each page. Ms. French writes literary fiction that just happens to be a mystery as well.The Secret Place is about a lot of things: friendships, jealousies, love, teenagers, police investigations, and murder.
Holly Mackey, 16 years old and the daughter of a detective who was featured in one of Ms. French's earlier books, is a student at St. Kilda's, a posh girls' school in Ireland. The Secret Place is a noticeboard in the school. If you have a secret, you put it on a card and tack it to the board. "The students use images and captions to convey their messages anonymously." Holly finds a note on the board that says "I know who killed him". The note refers to the murder of Chris Harper, a student at the boys' school next door. His head was bashed in about one year ago and his murder has become a cold case. Holly takes the card to Detective Stephen Moran, a detective in the cold case department of police headquarters.
Detective Moran is 32 years old and wants to move up. "Cold cases is good. Murder is better." "I'd been wishing for the murder squad for a long time." He takes the card to Detective Antoinette Conway of the murder squad who was the lead detective in the Christopher Harper murder. Her partner recently retired and Moran sees an opening for himself. "Conway wasn't going to want me. She was getting me anyway." Together, the two of them go to St. Kilda's and re-open the investigation.
What they find at St. Kilda's shakes them to the core. The adolescents are secretive, mocking, and altogether not helpful. Conway says all the girls are liars. At the school they find a "shimmer in the air that says 'danger'". The girls are grouped together in friendships that mean the world to them. They have made their families through these friendships. Who is trying to protect whom and what are their secrets? This is what Moran and Conway are trying to find out. There are two major cliques and they hate one another.
The novel goes back and forth in time, alternating between the voices of the detectives in the present, and the voices of the girls prior to Chris's murder. The four girls in the primary group each get a chance to speak about what happened in their own voice. The novel very carefully lets the reader know when the girls' chapters are taking place by stating how much time is still left for Chris to live.
I found it difficult to put the book down. Ms. French has a magical way with words, a unique gift of narrative that is solely her own. At times I wanted to call it magical realism but it is not quite that. The novel grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let me go, even when it was finished. Ms. French wants to show the complexity of human nature and she navigates the internal and external worlds of her characters with a shimmering quality.