Tana French’s The Secret Place is based in a posh girl’s boarding school in Dublin, where a 16-year old boy from the neighbouring boys’ school was killed last year. The investigating detective (Conway) couldn’t solve the crime at the time – he was killed in the middle of the night, all swear he wasn’t dating anyone serious at the time, and there’s no evidence that the girls can get out of the building by night. No forensics, no confessions – Conway is stumped.
A year later, a postcard appears on a school noticeboard, set up to allow girls to share their secrets and blow off steam (and for the nuns to monitor it!) It has a picture of the dead boy and says “I know who killed him.” A girl in the school brings it to Detective Moran, a more junior detective in Cold Cases, to be helpful to the police. Conway and Moran promptly turn up to try to crack the case open.
The mystery starts slow – very slow. There’s almost too much backstory that I feel could move quicker. I read it with my book club, and quite a few struggled to get into it. The middle of the book grips you, if you can persevere, as the detectives start to get a handle on the truth, the lies, and figure out the inner thoughts of teenage girls.
Some parts of the book I loved – there are numerous flashbacks throughout which illustrate the dynamics of the group of girls involved in the case, demonstrating how peer pressure from other girls or from boys make the whole world of growing up and negotiating early exploration of relationships really painful and difficult. The viewpoint from the point of view of teenage girls rings so true – how your friends can be more important than anything in your life, how hard it can be when one of your friends is at a different place with regard to boys than you are, or than you’re ready for. How some beliefs can take you over, feel more true than anything an adult will say. The fact it’s all grounded in a murder investigation stops it wandering too far from the point.
However, there are some flaws to the book. The two detectives are working class, and the author attempts to reflect their accents at times, which can sometimes pull you out of it. I liked the element of class in it – true to life for Dublin – but sometimes I felt we were being battered with it too much. I got it the first time – class and wealth preys on the minds of the detectives – but did they really have to bring it into their jobs all the time?? There were also some plot elements which were never really dealt with – scenes which reminded me of The Craft and then never really seemed relevant. Having not read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, the references to previous novels are a bit confusing – I think I would have gotten more from some of the character interactions if I had.
I’d strongly recommend it, but would caution you – you might not want to start with this one, and if a pretty perfect portrayal of Dublin teen girl speak annoys you (as I saw in some reviews) then avoid it! Atmospheric, character-driven – yes, and really enjoyable. Somewhat slow – also true.