Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

SecretPlaceI’ve had a wonderful few months of discovering new, great authors, and this continues with Tana French. Well, she’s new to me; this is actually the fifth book in her Dublin Murder Squad series. The series shares some characters, but from what I can gather (I’ve only read 2 out of the 5 so far), each book has a different main character, which is a neat way to keep a series fresh.  Also refreshing is a murder-mystery series that’s set in contemporary Ireland! – what a nice change from the usual Small English Village With A Murder Rate Higher Than London’s, or Small American Town With A Murder Rate To Match New York’s. It was actually my YA obsession that drew me to this particular novel; it’s set in an Irish girls’ boarding school. And wow, the author pulls no punches in showing what contemporary Irish teens are like! I find that  lot of YA books these days are really sanitized (I’m as guilty of this as anyone else! – there’s a lot of pressure on authors to keep sex, drinking, and drugs out of books), but this one calls it like it is. The teens in this book, besides being precocious, sexually active (some of them), drug users (a few of them), and social drinkers, are remarkable in how nasty they are to each other. This is the teen social spiderweb laid brutally bare.

The plot centres around the murder of a boy from the neighbouring boys’ boarding school of St. Colm’s: a new clue is brought it to Detective Stephen Moran by one of St. Kilda’s students, Holly. Detective Moran heads off to the school with Detective Antoinette Conway, his superior, to question all the fourth-year girls, who were already questioned a year ago, with no results. The story is told in two timeframes: present day, and then a series of flashbacks told from the point of view of Holly and her three friends Julia, Becca, and Selena. The book is a slow-boiler, with plot (minus the flashbacks) taking place of the course of one day. But the switches of POV and flashbacks take away from the slow intensity of the detectives’ long, painstaking day of questioning. This gives us a double-unfurling of clues: the two detectives start to peel away the layers of secrets and lies, and at the same time, we see the past plot unfurl from the inside out, as the girls take the reader through the events that led up to the murder. As a device, it’s somewhat similar to The Gone Girl, and it’s a great way to give the reader much more information than the detectives can only draw out slowly, while keeping us guessing: not only who committed the murder, but what events could possibly lead one of St. Kilda’s girls to do it?

Holly’s group of four has a rival group of four in the school: Joanne, Gemma, Orla, and Alison, the Mean Girls of their year. Joanne is the leader and the other three the followers, and most of the school is afraid of them. Holly and Julia, however, can give as good as they get, and what really makes this book is the interactions between these eight girls. Wow, does it make me glad not to be a teenager these days! They are beyond mean, not so much in their actions but in their words; these girls would probably make Darth Vader run crying to his mummy.

At the same time that the flashbacks are unfolding the changing relationships between the girls, and with a few of the boys at St. Colm’s, we also witness the tenuously building (working) relationship between the two detectives, who have never worked together before. Conway is disliked by the rest of the murder detectives, mostly for being female, and Moran desperately wants to get in to the murder squad (he’s previously been working cold cases). This case is his first chance, and at the same time Conway’s last chance. This adds nicely to the overall tension of the book.

As usual, I will give no spoilers! Suffice to say that the plot develops beautifully. It is a bit slow going, but no slower than Gone Girl, so if you’re a fan of Gone Girl, Brit Lit, and YA, then this book will delight you. The plot will keep you guessing the whole time (although I guessed right, by about halfway through the book; there are little clues for the reader), and the resolution is superb. I look forward to reading the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad series. order online research paper

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