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Book review: <i>The Secret Place</i> by Tana French

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the cover of the book

Four girls, an enduring friendship stronger and more real than anything they've ever experienced. But would one of them kill to keep it?

The story

Stephen Moran is shocked when Holly Mackey comes to find him. When last he saw her, she was ten years old, a reluctant witness to a horrible crime. Her father, higher up the force than Stephen, has helped him out on numerous occasions, but they aren't close.

Now, Holly's sixteen, a boarder at the prestigious St Kilda's, and she has evidence pertaining to a horrific crime – one of the boys from Colms, the boy's school just across the way – was found dead on the grounds of St Kilda a year previous.

Stephan Moran thinks this might be his chance to have a crack at getting into the Murder Squad and out of Cold Cases, where his career is stagnating. He calls Antoinette Conway, who was in charge of the original investigation, and takes her the evidence. Stephen has managed to insert himself into the investigation of a lifetime, a make or break for his future. Conway couldn't solve it last time. Can Stephen make enough of a difference to call a murderer out?

The style

I got sent this book by a publisher, having never heard of Tana French, nor read any of her stuff. Reading the blurb I thought, okay, maybe... because I'm a sucker for crime fiction but I'm suspicious when authors try to write teenagers. Because a lot of authors have clearly forgotten that they were ever teenagers, and write all teens as one dimensional morons who say “like” all the time. All my fears were for naught, though, because not only is Tana French an empathetic creator of a selection of different characters, she's also written a story that is incredibly hard to put down. I, for example, picked it up casually over last weekend and then stopped EVERYTHING I WAS DOING so I could finish reading it on Monday. The whole book. On Monday. just five more minutes, I'd say to myself, then two hours would pass. It's that readable.

The Secret Place is written from two different perspectives in alternating chapters, one perspective being that of Stephen Moran (from the first person) and the other being third person limited from the perspective of each of the four girls (Holly and her group of friends). These stories are separate but linked; Stephen's story is told in the present over the period of one day of investigation, and the girl's story follows the course of almost a year beforehand, both stories climaxing in the reveal of the identity of the murderer. The pacing is perfect, the suspense is perfect, and the characters are perfect. Bloody brilliant.

For me, there were a couple of factors aside from the excellent writing that made The Secret Place truly outstanding. Firstly, as mentioned above, the characterisation. The teenagers (and there were a lot of them) were fantastic. French CLEARLY remembers, and empathises, with how it is to be a teenager, and the slight element of magic (if we're unkind we could call it hysteria) that is brought from childhood, and isn't quite shaken out of a person until full adulthood. Teenagers are complex, they worry, they love in a way that adults don't. French gets it. The teens talk authentically, chew gum, make out, drink, and have authentic selves. There was no cringing in the reading experience. As for the adult characters, Moran and Conway, equally great. French writes from the point of view of the male cop (Moran) and does a solid job with his character. This then frees her up as an author to make observations about Conway, the female cop, and how she is treated etc, while not being irritatingly obvious about it. I've found a lot of police procedurals with a tough female lead are all “they treat me differently, fuck em, I'll show them, etc” and it's not helpful in dispelling sexist attitudes. But French's writing is far more subtle, and it's far more thought provoking.

Secondly, and you all know I'm a sucker for it, the Irish. Okay, not necessarily the Irish, but I love a crime fiction with a unique sense of place and this one's got it. The modes of speech, the setting, the weather, the trees – French knows Ireland, she's got it in her bones, and it spills out through her narrative. It gives the reader a tangible sense of where they are, and roots them firmly in the story. Thirdly, and straight on from that, there is more to this story than police procedure. The suspense is worthy of Stephen King, and the plot is filled with beautiful observations about human nature, the great and the not so great. There's something about it that draws you in and keeps you, reminds you of all kinds of childhood things. It's just great, okay?

Who is this book for?

If you're into crime but want a bit more bang for your buck, this is for you. If you're a Tana French fan (which I am now, I just read In The Woods) then definitely read this latest offering. DO NOT start reading this book if you're weak willed and have other stuff to do, like cleaning the house. Because your house won't get clean.

If you like this book, you would also like...

More Tana French! Reviews will be forthcoming, I've just bought all of her books off Amazon. British crime is quite a bit less whimsical than this, but Janwillem Van De Wetering has a crime-fiction style that might work for you.

In short

Title: The Secret Place
Author: Tana French
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670026326
Year published: 2014
Pages: 464
Genre(s): Crime fiction
Review Type: