"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Secret Place

TITLE: The Secret Place
AUTHOR: Tana French

The Secret Place is a bulletin board in St. Kilda's, a posh girls school. The bulletin board is a place where the girls can post their secrets, similar to the PostSecret project. As with other books in her Dublin Murder Squad mystery novels, French uses a supporting character from a previous book as the main character here, or rather, in this case, two characters. The narrator is Stephen Moran, a detective who previously, as a young and ambitious cop, helped out Det. Frank Mackay in Faithful Place, and is now stuck in Cold Cases. The other returning character is Frank's daughter Holly, now a 16-year-old.

It's been seven years since Stephen last saw Holly, when she'd been a witness in a murder investigation, but he'd developed a rapport with her, so it's to him that she brings a postcard she found on the Secret Place, a postcard with a photo of a boy found dead on St. Kilda's grounds the year before, with the words "I know who killed him" pasted on like a ransom note.

Stephen, eager to join the Murder Squad, seizes his opportunity, convincing the prickly lead detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, to let him assist with the investigation. The day they spend at St. Kilda's forms the main part of the book, chapters alternating with the year previously, told from the perspective of Holly and her friends. It doesn't take long for Stephen and Conway to narrow down the maker of the cryptic postcard to one of eight teen girls: Holly and her three friends who are closer than sisters, and their four rivals.

It sounds simple, but it isn't. French is a literary writer and she clearly has more than a murder mystery to tell. The mystery of growing up; innocence and its loss; the closeness of friends and how secrets can eat away the strongest, most precious bonds; the flirtations and mindgames of teen boys and girls as they try to discover who and what they are; the rivalries and ways the rivals undermine each other all make for a situation more dangerous than Stephen had bargained for. Trying to separate the lies from the truths becomes an enormous challenge for the two detectives, and for the reader. So many times, I thought I'd had it figured out only to be proven wrong. At the end, I'd figured out most of the story, but that's because, unlike the detectives, I had the benefit of reading the events as they occurred. By book's end, it's Holly and her friends -- Julia, Selena, and Rebecca -- who are still in my head. French is excellent at creating characters who feel real, who have not just emotions and desires but true inner lives. When the book ended, I wasn't ready to let any of the characters go.