The Secret Place by Tana French

I was working in a bookstore when Tana French’s first novel, In The Woods, came out and made a huge splash. It won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It’s hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago and she’s now published her fifth novel. I’ve been meaning to read her, so when the publicist asked if I’d be interested in a review copy I gladly said yes. And then the mystery book group I’m in chose it as our October read which made me even more excited to finally dip into the world of the Dublin Murder Squad.

From the publisher:

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 Place is a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.

I had a hard time getting into this novel and almost gave up around page 160. What kept me going was not bailing on my peers in book group, so I gave myself an extra push and keep reading.

It did pick up a bit shortly after the 160 page mark. I wish I could say it became a thrilling read, but the truth is I’m rather lukewarm about my first Tana French novel. Most of the members of the book club felt the same. Some said it was long and repetitious. The harshest comment was that its tedious. We did, however, have a good conversation about the book and I think we all came to appreciate it a bit more due to our shared insights and questions.

Why couldn’t I get into it? For one, I just didn’t care that about the characters. Good or bad, nothing pulled me in about them. The relationship between Detective Stephen Moran and Detective Antoinette Conway grew on me and this is one of the reasons the book eventually picked up a bit for  me. I can easily see them partnering in a future book to solve another crime. The setting, a private school for girls in Dublin, could’ve had much more ambiance. Then there are a few scenes where the main group of girls seem to have supernatural powers, but they are not really incorporated into the overall story other than their rival group of girls calling them witches, but there was really no basis for the name calling other than teenage bitchiness. The supernatural elements left us scratching our heads. I wondered if it was a nod to Stephen King’s Carrie.

One thing that I think French does very well is to show how the teens in this novel are beginning to experience and negotiate the entrenched ideals of sexism and inequality now that some of them are becoming sexually active. These patterns are reflected in the adult world of the novel and you see exactly where the teens get their ideas of how men and women “should” treat each other, particularly in the philosophy of Detective Frank Mackey who thinks people should keep their mouths shut and go along with the way things are to fit in. According to him, Detective Conway should let male detectives slap her ass and play it cool rather than threatening to break the guy’s finger. It’s a slap-ass world, in Mackey’s book. Conway thinks otherwise and is no doubt a role model for at least one of the girls.

I also enjoyed French’s writing. She has some wonderful sentences and descriptions that I read twice for the sheer pleasure. Here’s an example, a description of Chris, one of the students from the boys school next door:

“The moonlight changes him. Daytime, he’s just another Colm’s rugger-bugger, cute if you have cheap chain-restaurant tastes, charming if you like knowing every conversation before it begins. Here he’s something more. He is beautiful the way something that lasts forever is beautiful” (348).

Two members of the book group have read all but one of French’s earlier books and said that The Secret Place wouldn’t be the book they recommend people start with if they want to read French, although they’re sure established French fans would enjoy the novel.

In The Woods, they said, is where people should start reading French. My Twitter friend Jennifer Messner (@occassionallyzen) echoed their recommendation, and so I’ve added In the Woods to my library sale hunting and gathering list.

Something to consider: One book group member said she also listened to the audio version, which is a treat for American listeners due to the Irish accents.

The Secret Place: Dublin Murder Squad #5
Tana French
Viking, September 2014
Source: review copy

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer and the thoughts expressed above are my own.

One comment

  1. Interesting summary. It's funny how sometimes we get to a tipping point with a book and we almost don't carry on. Not caring about the characters is a serious problem. Good that you suggest possible better places to start with French.

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