Book Review: The Secret Place

20821043Title: The Secret Place

Author: Tana French

Series: Dublin Murder Squad #5

Genre: Mystery

Rating: ★★★¾

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.

Disclaimer: There will be no spoilers for other books in this series because they all stand on their own. You can totally pick this up without reading any of the others. If you are not in the mood for the others, I suggest that you jump right into this one even! That said, Faithful Place does provide some backstory but none that’s essential.

I think this might have surpassed The Likeness as my favorite Tana French book?? It was just sooooo gooooood. The sharp charecterization, the haunting atmospheres, the witty writing: it’s all there in its glorious Tana-French-ness. Add to that the tight plot with interwoven flashbacks and sharp observations about what it’s like to be a teenage girl and you get this book.

One thing that I loved about this (which applies to The Likeness as well) is that it focuses on friendships. Holly’s friendship with three other girls is at the front and center of this novel. They all fiercely love and care for each other, in their own, often misguided ways. French nails the dynamics, the intensity, the quiet moments, the funny ones too that make this type of groups tick. I never had a problem believing because they struck so close to my own group of friends, and I wish more books focused on this because this kinds of relationships are very formative and important. Each girl is clearly drawn and very vivid. They are all allowed a voice, so it makes the unravelling of it all even more heart-wrenching.

The writing is both lush and blunt, but I also felt it’s the tightest it’s ever been for French. The flashback chapters, narrated in third person, just let it shine all the more. There is also new found metaphorical richness that, in my opinion, works a lot better than in Broken Harbor. There’s a particular element of magic realism that I’m sure will not work for everyone, but I thought it was very fitting in a more symbolic sense. And the writing is never overwrought for its sake: it services the atmosphere and characters at all times. This is one of my favorite quotes:

They are forever, a brief and mortal forever, a forever that will grow into their bones and be held inside them after it ends, intact, indestructible.

The detectives are also great. Watching them interact and slowly start to trust one another was precious. I got more feels from them silently agreeing than from most romance plotlines I’ve read this year. Conway is such a great character. She is blunt, abrasive, and grumpy in a way that female characters seldom are allowed to be. That said, I loved that we got this male narrator for a story about teenage girls because Moran quickly learns not to ever underestimate them (“If I’ve learned one thing today, it’s that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods”). He also respects Conway at every turn which umm why aren’t more male characters like this. Like a book with this premise could have soooo easily fallen into so many sexist tropes and it never does.

That said, I do feel like we got to know the detectives better in previous books. Maybe it’s because half of the book follows the girls. However, Moran does have a very clear arc in this book and, as I said, his growing relationship with Conway is just a delight to see unfold. I hope that The Trespasser, which follows the two of them, delves deeper into their backstories.

The mystery is maybe one of the weaker points of the book. Just as with Faithful Place, I guessed who’d done it, like, halfway through the book, but I could not have cared less. By that point, I was so invested in the characters that the whodunit became secondary; I wanted to know why and how it was going to affect the characters. In my opinion, this is what makes a good mystery novel, or one that’s memorable at least. In these books, there isn’t random shock-value revelations which makes very satisfying to read.

I haven’t been this engrossed in the actual act of reading in such a long time. It truly is a page-turner for all the best reasons.

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