Review of “The Secret Place” by Tana French

This is the fifth book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and while I didn’t race through it as I did the previous books, it did not disappoint me in the least.

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Detective Stephen Moran works Cold Cases, but what he really wants is to transfer to the Murder Squad – “Murder is a brand on your arm, like an elite army unit’s, like a gladiator’s, saying for all your life: One of us. The finest.”

When 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him some evidence relevant to a still-open case of a boy found murdered a year earlier on the grounds of Holly’s school, Stephen may have his chance. Holly hands him a photo that was posted on “The Secret Place” – a notice board at St. Kilda’s for the girls to put up any anonymous message they want to get out of their systems. This particular photo showed Chris Harper, the dead boy, with a caption reading “I know who killed him.”

Stephen takes the card to the Murder Squad officer in charge, Detective Antoinette Conway. Conway, as a woman, is not part of the “old boys club” of Murder, and as Stephen intuits, “every day had to be a fight” for her. She is rough and abrasive. Stephen doesn’t care – he just wants to help work the case.

The two head over to St. Kilda’s, where the girls start the semester:

“…screaming triple exclamation marks and jump-hugging in corridors that smell of dreamy summer emptiness and fresh paint; they come with peeling tans and holiday stories, new haircuts and new-grown breasts that make them look strange and aloof, at first, even to their best friends.”

But all that golden brightness is offset by the dangerous power of the girls’ developing bodies, by expectations, by the fear of not being acceptable or accepted, by the vicious cliques that divide their loyalties, and by the extensive networks of lies that bind all of them up in webs of deception. Somehow, Conway and Moran have to find a way to break through all that and get to the bottom of Chris’s death. And to do it, they have to get on with each other and support each other, especially when Holly’s father Frank Mackey, detective from Undercover, arrives to protect his daughter’s interests.

Discussion: Tana French is so good it almost hurts. This book is not as fast-moving as the previous books, but allows readers to savor every bit of the author’s skill with capturing dialogue. The writing is excellent; French is expert at describing a scene so that you can see it yourself, and setting a mood so that you actually sense it, whether menace or hope or shyness or insouciance. She conveys the thoughts of the characters so well we know exactly how they feel – such as Stephen’s fascination with the lifestyle of the wealthy combined with his alienation from it, his wistful admiration of the uniqueness of innocent love, and his insight that once you are an adult, the opportunity to feel like that is forever lost to you. He muses:

“When you stop being a kid, you lose your one chance at that too-tender-to-touch gold, that breathtaken everything and forever. Once you start growing up and getting sense, the outside world turns real, and your own private world is never everything again.”

Stephen’s interactions with the girls at St. Kilda’s brings it all back to him:

“You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched to the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled bright enough to scald you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.”

He wistfully and aptly describes the things young kids in love say to each other: “Sappy stuff, once-in-a-lifetime stuff, stuff to make you cringe and break your heart.”

I could also feel the force of Conway’s defensive hostility and the reason she got that way. And the growing connection between Moran and Conway – so skillfully done! As for the teenage girls: there is no way to contain my admiration for the way French brought them to life in all their desperation and craving and hope and horror. Just outstanding!

Evaluation: I highly recommend the books by Tana French, but I understand that the audio versions, which bring out the accents and dialect in a way a written book does not, are even better. If you haven’t read any of Tana French yet, or just want to try one, I would suggest Faithful Place – my favorite of her books – which will introduce you to the characters you meet again in this book (although they are all perfectly fine as standalones).

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (US) LLC, 2014

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11 Responses to Review of “The Secret Place” by Tana French

  1. Mystica says:

    Another good one by this author.

  2. Tana French is so, so good. I would love to read this one!

  3. melreadingcorner says:

    I love her books! I’m hoping the next book will feature more of Detective Antoinette Conway.

  4. sandynawrot says:

    “So good it almost hurts”. Yes, exactly. It is hard for almost anyone else to even come close to her skill in this genre really. I don’t believe this book was her best, but saying that almost feels nit-picky. Every one of these books is a treasure in its own way, and YES audio. YES YES YES. They make you swoon.

  5. Trisha says:

    I’m still off the Tana French bandwagon, having never read her yet, but I”m clearly missing out.

  6. I read her first one and enjoyed it but for some reason didn’t move forward. Maybe I will pick up Faithful Place and go from there. Thanks for a very informative review.

  7. I really liked In the Woods on audio… think I’ll continue with Faithful Place.

  8. Beth F says:

    Ok, ok. I’m with Trisha — haven’t jumped on yet. I must make time. Probably on audio.

  9. Heather says:

    I’m 150 pages into this right now and I can’t put it down. She is so, so good. There’s no other way to describe it.

  10. Ti says:

    I skipped down to your rating to see if you liked it. I just got a copy of it and didn’t want to know too much about the story. I haven’t read any of her other books besides her very first one. I loved that first one so I am not sure why I’ve waited so long to read her others. It doesn’t matter if I read this one before the others, right?

  11. litandlife says:

    I’m so hoping to get to this one soon!

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