The Secret Place is the fifth novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad sequence and by my reckoning, the best yet. Rather than featuring the same group of characters in every novel, French links each successive book through the reoccurrence of a relatively minor player from the previous episode in a more significant role in the next. Enter centre stage Detective Stephen Moran, at present a member of the Cold Case Unit, but desperate to find a place in the elite Murder Squad. The opportunity appears to have been presented to him on a plate when a sixteen year old school girl brings him evidence relating to a murder enquiry that stalled twelve months previously. This is, however, no ordinary schoolgirl. We last saw Holly Mackey giving evidence as an eleven year old in another case; giving that evidence to Stephen to whom she comes now because she can trust him not to treat her like a chicken. Furthermore, we are well acquainted with Holly’s father, Frank Mackey, who is part of the undercover unit and who has featured in several of these novels as well as playing the central role in Faithful Place. Nobody takes Frank Mackey for a ride and it seems that his daughter has inherited much of his calculating astuteness.
Both Stephen and the reader would do well to remember this as they delve further into the murder case that is now re-opened under the leadership of Antoinette Conway, a member of the Murder Squad but someone who finds it hard to work within the team. As a junior investigator the previous year, when the body of Chris Harper was found in the grounds of St Kilda’s Girls school, Conway was frustrated by the silence maintained by the girls in respect of the dealings between themselves and the boys from St Colm’s, where Chris was a pupil. Knowing that it is likely the powers that be will take the case from her, she and Stephen go into St Kilda’s quickly and hard and very soon narrow their focus to two quartets of fourth years, Holly and her friends Julia, Selina and Becca and their sworn foes, Joanne, Gemma, Orla and Alison.
The difference between these two groups is crucial to the motivation behind the murder. Joanne is one of those sixteen year olds that I, certainly, would quite willingly swing for. She sees herself as queen of all she surveys and manipulates the other three in her dorm to service her own needs. If someone had murdered Joanne they could have legitimately pleaded public interest as a defence. Holly, Julia, Selina and Becca are a different matter entirely. They have that sort of intense friendship that can only come about during teenage years: a friendship where the needs of the group and of the other members of the group are automatically placed above your own. And while Stephen recognise this and its importance to the case, he also envies them their closeness. It is a type of relationship he has searched for and never found.
Such intense relationships can breed problems however and the reader has a type if access to what such problems might be that is denied to the two detectives. French maintains a strict structure in this novel. The actual investigation takes place over a matter of hours but the chapters that tell that part of the story are interlaced with others that chart the journey of the friendship and the pressures to which both it and the individual four girls are subjected. French knows the teenage psyche only too well and the narrative she relates detailing the passage of the last months of Chris Harper’s life is only too believable to anyone who has worked extensively with young people of this age group. In fact, this leads me to my only criticism of this book. If you have worked with teenagers you know very early on who the murderer is and why the crime was committed. You also know what the damage is likely to be to those who are left. Once I realised where this was going I found it very hard to continue to the end.
Indeed, when I think back on her earlier novels I realise that French specialises in charting the harm that crime does to those who are neither the immediate perpetrator nor the most obvious victim and I find myself wondering, therefore, why I look forward to her books with such pleasurable anticipation. Part of it is because she writes so well. Take, for example, the closing lines of this conversation between Holly and her friends, which capture precisely a type of moment we all know but which we would be hard put to define even to ourselves.
In a while Holly says, “Hey, you know where Cliona is? She’s in the library, looking for a sonnet to copy that Smythe won’t know.”
“She’s gonna get caught,” Becca says.
“That’s so typical,” Selena says. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just write the sonnet?”
“Well, totally,” Holly says. “This always happens. She ends up working harder to get out of doing the thing than she would just doing the thing.”
They leave space for Julia to say something. When she doesn’t, the space gets bigger. The conversation falls into it and vanishes.
As long as French continues to tell me stories not only so exquisitely written but also so perfectly observed I am going to be waiting eagerly for whatever comes next.