I was lucky enough to win an ARC of The Secret Place by Tana French from The Commuter Book Club on Twitter, and as soon as I opened the parcel, it had gripped my attention.
Just look at that taunting cover – ‘I know who killed him’ and you don’t, it implies. I was just about ready to read the next book on my TBR list – had it sat in my handbag, even – but it quickly got pushed back a place; I simply had to know.
Now, crime isn’t my usual preferred genre. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I’ve just genuinely never read much of it, it’s never really grabbed me before. (This could be something to do with me being quite a wimp, and hence avoiding such topics!) However, I’m always willing to try anything, and like I said, it had me hooked in from the cover alone. (The back of the book was equally taunting – rather than finding the blurb – which has been relocated to the inner front page – there are simply three reviews, each cleverly headed with ‘Stephen King knows who killed him’ etc… ‘Do you?’ Well played, Hodder & Stoughton, well played.) So basically, I’ve never read any of Tana French’s books, nor many others in the same genre, so I was heading in with a totally blank canvas on what to expect.
Basic plot: Detective Stephen Moran has been stuck working cold cases for a while, until one morning, 16-year-old Holly Mackey (a witness in a previous case of his several years a go) skips school to hand deliver him a note she found on The Secret Place – a notice board for the girls to anonymously post their secrets; a creation of St Kilda’s headmistress McKenna. This particular post contains a photo of Chris Harper, the teen who’s murder is still unsolved from the year before, and a hand crafted note from cut out letters: I know who killed him.
Moran knows that solving this case could lead to his big break to leave cold cases behind, and move up to play with the big boys in Murder, but to get there he’ll have to work with Detective Conway; cold, sharp and prickly and nothing like the partner he’d been dreaming of for so long. He sucks it up and they head into St Kilda’s, but they’re about to discover that the world of teenage girls is far more complex and down-right scary than he ever could have imagined, and while McKenna is desperate to preserve the pristine image of her school and its students, it looks like every girl there has their secrets. While they start their search looking for the girl who left the note, Moran is quickly made to question if maybe a teenage girl could have been the murderer all along…
The story is told over the events of that single day, while Conway and Moran attempt to unravel the mysteries of girl-world, spotting the truth from the abundance of lies, as well as flash back scenes of Holly and her classmates in the months counting down to Chris’ death.
Now, the only warning I’ll have is this: some readers may find the girl talk a bit hard to handle, the ohmygods and yeah, but, like, right? But for me, having attended a private girls school, it was all too familiar, and really got me pulled into their world. Yes, there’s a lot of it, and they’re whiny and annoying and ridiculous – but that’s the whole point. That’s exactly what these girls are: whiny and annoying and ridiculous, in their own little bubble of friendship and school where they don’t see the big, wide world in the distance. You see the strength of the bonds of friendship made at such a raw age, where your friends are your everything, and the power play between 16-year-olds is pretty damn scary. I think French nailed it, I’m just warning it doesn’t necessarily make for easy reading for everyone, especially if you’ve never known that type of girl-world. Ignore that, let it annoy you as it’s supposed to – the characters themselves annoy you, not the writing.
Despite the cleverly constructed teen setting, this is far from a Young Adult novel. It’s heart is an unsolved murder mystery, that keeps you on your toes throughout. French throws an endless stream of clues and hints, and – like the Detectives – I found myself desperately trying to work out what was a relevant clue to the murder, what was truth and what was trying to send us on a wild goose chase. You question the most insignificant details, never sure what little snippet of information she has let slip to you, that may be more than it seems. This worked really well with having the story told from two separate directions, as I was always trying to tie things up in between, never sure where the clues were coming from.
One of my favourite parts was the slow progression of the relationship between Conway and Moran. Moran is instantly likeable, with an eye for appreciating the beautiful things in life. And Conway, well, she’s pretty much a bitch, constantly testing Moran, making sure he knows his place. But as the day unfolds you see the relationship grow as Moran starts to prove his worth, and what French writes so beautifully is the tiny moments between characters that capture so much more.
Overall, it’s a captivating crime novel, with a murder you are desperate to solve right from the start and beautifully written character relationships, and has totally opened up a genre to me that I’ve never given much thought before – I honestly enjoyed it so much more than I’d ever expected to.
What I didn’t know before hand, is this is part of French’s Dublin Murder Squad series – book 5, in fact. However, they can be read as stand alone books – this one in particular, from what I can deduce. Needless to say, I will promptly be ordering the previous four!
The Secret Place is out on August 28th – do yourself a favour and pre-order this book now; you won’t regret it! http://ow.ly/Afn3s