Have you ever read a book that feels tailor made for you? Like someone hopped inside your brain, picked out exactly what you love in a book, and then actually took the time to write said book? That’s what Tana French’s The Secret Place is for me. It’s an ideal balance of crime fiction and YA drama. Never has an author so perfectly portrayed the delicate balance between uncontrolled innocence and terrifying insecurity.
I received a copy of this book through the First to Read program with the agreement that I would write a review (and it’s going to contain spoilers in case you haven’t noticed the tags and the site notice) before the release date. That meant that I had to read this book out of order in the series. I cannot explain how much this would normally bother me. I have put off books for years so that I could read the ones that come before it. But, I had no choice this time. How much I liked this book, knowing I still needed to read the ones between it, speaks to the talent of the author. She crafts this world of the Dublin Murder Squad in a way that weaves seamlessly together from book to book, but also allows a reader to pick up any book in the series and enjoy it without ruining anything from a previous book.
I’ve read In the Woods, and part of The Likeness. That means I haven’t met Stephen Moran yet, but I know he’s going to show up in one of the books, as is Holly. I know a little bit about his story, but it hasn’t been spoiled for me. I noticed the same skill in the portion of The Likeness I’ve read. The strength of this book has made me more excited to get back to the other ones. Tana French is eating my life!
Like her other book I’ve read, this one is two stories told simultaneously. It’s these two stories that make the book so amazing. In one story, Moran and his tough as nails, partner for the day, Antoinette Conway, have reignited the investigation of teenage boy killed the previous year on the campus of an exclusive all-girls school. Holly, a student at the school, has brought them a photo from the school’s message board with the message that someone at the school knows who killed him. Conway is known as a ball-buster, no nonsense, outcast on the murder team. Moran wants nothing more than to be part of the squad – Conway is not his yellow brick road. She knows that if she screws this up, she’s going to be slowly edged out of the unit. Both of them know that this case will make or break their futures. Their part of the story takes place over the course of one day. Moran finds his perfect partner in this unlikely, and not always likable, woman. Both of them come from poor, underprivileged backgrounds in Dublin’s ghettos but have grown into two very different people: Stephan wants to please people; Antoinette shuts everyone out. Somehow, they balance each other perfectly.
Stephen’s ability to morph his personality to suit the people around him allows him to connect with the teenage girls at the school in a way Conway and Costello were never able to. He puts on the face the girls want to see – flirty, protective, inspired, awed, trusting. Whatever they need, he becomes. It works – to a degree. He thinks that he’s using these girls to get the information he needs, but he doesn’t realize how dangerous they really are. This is a common theme throughout the book – adults thinking they are controlling the children. The headmistress’ belief in the good the bulletin board of secrets is doing is misplaced. The adults all think that they are providing these outlets for the girls, but a lot of times they are actually just creating new ways for them to be mean to the people around them. Sorting their way through all the lies becomes one of the hardest things for the detectives. This leads into the second story. The girls.
The YA portion of this book is almost perfection – I’ll get to the almost later. The thing that a lot of people get wrong when they write about teenagers is that they don’t give them enough credit. They make everything surface. French definitely doesn’t do this. And she doesn’t get bogged down trying to explain all the backstories about why the girls are the way they are. We don’t need to know why Joanne is a bitch or Gemma is promiscuous. We just know that they are. Sometimes, actions don’t need a backstory to be believable.
The relationships between teenage girls are complicated. So much more complicated than adult relationships. What you see is almost never all you get. There are two groups of girls in this story – the popular, mean girl cliché and the super friends (where Holly lives). The investigation has always focused on these two groups of girls. Conway has always known that they would somehow find the key to the investigation here, but she could never put her thumb on it. With Moran’s help, she finally starts to make some headway. These two groups of girls are prime examples of the different ways social influence can shape a teen’s life.
French puts into words something every girl knows but I’ve never seen written this perfectly. I’m going to paraphrase because it’s a longish section but the gist of what she says is – As kids we’re taught not to be scared. To be brave and adventurous and trust our instincts and the people around us. Then we become teenagers and we’re taught to fear everything. Our grades. Our friends. The wrong friends. Not having the perfect guy. Being a slut. Being a prude. Be scared of guys because they can’t control themselves. And when you no longer have any idea what you’re supposed to do, you’re finally right.
“Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.”
Joanne’s group are the girls that buy into this message with all the credit they have on their parents’ gold card. Joanne forces her ‘friends’ to act the way they should. They have certain requirements. If they don’t do them, she punishes them. She hates Holly and her friends because they think they can just do whatever they want. She repeatedly says that this is a big part of the reason she calls them freaks – because they don’t conform. They think they’re allowed to decide where they fit. They used to be normal and then they got all independent. No one reinforces the stereotyped norms to a teen girl more than the other girls around her.
Being a teen girl sucks. I’m sure it’s equally hard to be a boy, but I wasn’t one, so I can’t speak to that. I know what it was like to be a girl. This flood of emotions and hormones. These rules that you have to follow that change all the time. These actions that you can’t even explain – and not just by other people. Sometimes it’s hard to explain your own actions and thoughts. There’s no other time in life that you’re ever so completely sure and unsure of yourself at the same time. Everything and everyone around you influences who you become. Your friends are crucial.
Holly’s group symbolizes this other part of being a teenager – the unbelievable, unattainable, once in a life time, out of control importance of your friends. Holly only ends up boarding at the school because she puts the importance of her friends above the importance of everything else. When the murder happened and her dad wanted to take you home until it was solved, she put her relationship with her friends before her own safety and by staying at the school she was probably part of the reason they never figured out who did it. Inside this tightknit group of friends is the core of this murder – secrets. When we’re in these friendships, there’s a belief that no one would ever lie to the other people in the circle – but there are always secrets. It’s the secrets that lead to Chris’ death. Becca is the one everyone sees as young and naive and immature, but she’s the one that relies the most on these friendships. She knows – knows – that nothing can come between her and her friends. And that if something does come between them, it just needs to be removed. That’s all Chris is – an obstacle. Her conviction that she’s right is the reason the detectives have such a hard time figuring out that it’s her. Even when they finally confront her with what they’ve discovered, she still knows that she’s in the right and admits that she would do it again.
The book is almost perfect – almost! My complaint is the same one I’ve read from other people – the magical element. I could understand this too a point. That feeling when the girls are outside at night and everything feels different and magical and meant for you – yes. I could totally get behind that. But the levitating stuff and blowing up lightbulbs and controlling light and fire… nope. Sorry. I just can’t do it. It feels so out of place in this real world novel. I just couldn’t resolve it with the rest of the story. If it could have been written off as teenage fantasy, it might have worked. But when Becca blows up the light bulb and everyone else sees it, including the detectives, it loses me. Maybe it’s supposed to be a coincidence. Maybe Holly attributing it to Becca is supposed to be part of this stylized lifestyle they’re living. Maybe if I look at it from that way, I’ll be able to accept it more, but I’ll probably just try to ignore it until I re-read it and see if it makes more sense.
The mystery portion of the book is excellent. Like her other book, it’s got just enough red herrings and distractions. There are enough moments where you’re sure you know what happened and then suddenly you’re not. French is a master of hiding her killers in plain sight. Placing them in such a way that you’re aware of them but aren’t focused on them. Based on these two novels, French is absolutely my favourite author discovery of the last year. The Secret Place belongs on the bookshelf of every mystery lover.
*The Secret Place by Tana French is scheduled for release September 2, 2014.