Friday, September 12, 2014

The Secret Place, by Tana French

In each of her titles, Tana French picks a secondary character from a previous book (always a Dublin cop) and makes them the primary character. Two books ago, I predicted that Detective Stephen Moran would be next--and I was wrong, but only by one book. I also mentioned that Stephen did not seem to have the serious personal problems the other members of the Dublin Murder Squad harbored--and he still doesn't (okay, he has a problem with intimacy, but it's not serious compared to what we've seen in the earlier books), which may be one reason this is my favorite French book to date.

Moran is at work in the Cold Case Squad when Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey from Faithful Place, comes in carrying a clue to a year-old case. Chris Harper, a handsome student at a nearby boys school, was found dead on the grounds of St. Kilda's School, where Holly and her three best friends are boarders. The evidence is a card found on "The Secret Place," a bulletin board intended to subvert cruel websites by giving students a place to anonymously voice their insecurities, worries, dislikes, etc. The card sports a picture of Chris and the line "I know who killed him."

Stephen takes the evidence to the homicide detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, and the two head to St. Kilda's, where they will spend a grueling day investigating the eight girls (including Holly) who had the opportunity to kill Chris. The story of their investigation is intercut with a chronological account of the months before and after the murder, told from the perspectives of the eight girls, who comprised two tight-knit foursomes. French does an excellent job portraying the importance of friendship to teenage girls (and to cops), as well as their profound insecurities and potential for cruelty and manipulation. By focusing on the interrogations of the girls, she also demonstrates the importance of questioning style and intuition, as well as logic and evidence, to police work.

While there are some semi-supernatural elements to the story that didn't seem necessary, I thought this book's exploration of friendship and teenage angst elevated it above French's earlier works. Once again, French's prose sometimes sings and is always readable.

Favorite passages:
The Court [a shopping mall] pulls like a towering magnet and everyone comes. Anything can happen here, in the sparkling slice of freedom between classes and teatime; your life could lift right off the ground and shimmer into something brand-new. In the dizzying white light all the faces glimmer, they mouth words and crack open in laughs you can almost catch through the cloud of sounds, and any one of them could be the heart-stopping one you've been waiting for; anything you can imagine could be waiting for you here, if you turn your head at just the right second, if you just catch the right eye, if the right song just comes spinning out of the speakers all around you. Sugar-smell of fresh doughnuts drifting out from the kiosk, lick it off your fingers.

She hears all the voices from when she was little, soothing, strengthening: Don't be scared, not of monsters, not of witches, not of big dogs. And now. snapping loud from every direction: Be scared, you have to be scared, ordering like this is your one absolute duty. Be scared you're fat, be scared your boobs are too big and be scared they're too small. Be scared to walk on your own, specially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. Be scared of wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong thing, having a stupid laugh, being uncool.. . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.

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