FICTION: Tana French’s fifth novel tackles a cold-case murder at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Dublin.
Opening Tana French’s latest novel “The Secret Place” is like falling headlong into a rabbit hole, right back into the heady, excruciating days of adolescence.
Detective Stephen Moran receives a visit from Holly Mackey, daughter of detective Frank Mackey (protagonist of an earlier French novel, “Faithful Place”). Holly was only 9 when she testified as a witness in a case Moran worked years ago. Moran is surprised when Holly, now 16, brings him a photo posted on a board at St. Kilda’s convent school, a very public but anonymous notice board filled with confessions known as the Secret Place. The photo, of a smiling young man, is captioned with cutout letters: “I know who killed him.”
The boy in the picture is Chris Harper, a popular student at St. Colm’s, the boys’ school down the road from St. Kilda’s. Harper was murdered one year ago, on the grounds of the girls’ school, and the case has gone cold. Moran hooks up with brusque Murder Squad detective Antoinette Conway to dig into the details once more.
The novel’s structure works well: French toggles deftly between the present, as Moran and Conway spend a single eventful day interviewing students at St. Kilda’s — and the past, marking various significant episodes in the previous year, with periodic reminders about how long Chris Harper has to live. There are two main groups of witnesses (and possible suspects) in the case: Holly and her gang, including the smart-alecky Julia, dreamy Selena and unsophisticated Becca, who frequent a cypress glade that has become their own after-hours Secret Place — and their archrivals, queen bee Joanne Heffernan and her trio of toadies, all drawn with exquisite detail.
French uses language like a virtuoso, infusing the pages with giddy frissons of first love and forbidden nighttime forays, not to mention the hair-raising electrical intensity of female power contained within the walls of a convent school. Her writing isn’t flawless — the characters sometimes lack a distinct voice, and end up sounding too much the same. Moran, a working-class Dub reared in a council flat, has an interior voice that’s occasionally as oddly observant and moody as the schoolgirls he’s been interviewing. And entertaining as it feels at the beginning, all the stereotypical teen slang (OhmyGod! Hel-lo?) wears pretty thin after 400-plus pages.
But French has enough dazzling skill to draw us into a hidden world, exploring complex bonds of friendship and loyalty, and working through an amazingly intricate plot. “The Secret Place” not only captures the agony and ecstasy of adolescence, but also slyly reminds us that drama doesn’t end when youth is left behind.
Erin Hart is a St. Paul crime writer whose novels are set in Ireland; her latest is “The Book of Killowen” from Scribner.