Tuesday, 27 May 2014

More than just a crime novel: The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place by Tana French The Secret Place (28 August 2014) by Tana French

The fifth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad sequence, The Secret Place has a simple setup which offers endless possibilities for intriguing diversions. A teenage boy is found murdered in the grounds of a girls' boarding school; no suspects are identified, and the case goes cold. A year later, a girl from the school presents the police with a note that says 'I know who killed him'. It's been anonymously posted on a noticeboard called the Secret Place, a kind of real-life version of PostSecret which the girls of St Kilda's use to pin up confessions, observations and, inevitably, bitchy comments. Two detectives, Stephen Moran (who narrates most of the story) and Antoinette Conway, head to the school to reinvestigate the case.

Most of the story unfolds across the course of one day and involves a lot of in-depth conversations between the detectives and the girls of St Kilda's. That might sound a bit of an insubstantial basis for a big, meaty book, but it's actually riveting: instead of dragging the narrative down, the amount of detail makes it zip along at such a speed you'll have devoured the whole thing before you know it. French explores the intricacies of teen friendships through these discussions and Moran's own reminiscences about his childhood; while the luxurious environment of St Kilda's often provides a stark contrast to his memories, it also provokes nostalgia. As well as the main narrative, there are occasional flashbacks which delve deeper into the relationships between these girls, giving them something more of a voice. These parts are wonderfully realistic in their portrayal of the young characters' primary concerns - the obsession with boys and the potential of sex, the spiteful and vicious cruelty of other girls, the depths of despair that unhappiness can drag you to, the hysteria - but also keep hold of the innocence and magic that's still there at this age, when friendships seem like they can last forever and crushes feel like great love affairs. It's a world away from the empty, nihilistic awfulness of teenage life depicted in another recent read, Wild Things (which, to be fair, was about a university college rather than a school, but with characters only a few years older than those in The Secret Place). However, the narrative also does a really good job of keeping the girls' lives at arm's length and ensuring the book remains focused on the murder investigation and the adult perspective of the police characters.

I can't really call myself a Tana French fan, because I've only read three of her books, and based on my opinion of The Likeness (which, bizarrely, has the highest average rating of any of them on Goodreads) I am not inclined to go back and read the first one. But they just seem to get better, and perhaps I am tentatively edging towards fan status. I really enjoyed Broken Harbour and this was an absolute blast. I felt genuine affection for the characters - I loved Becca in particular, and Conway was great too, although I'm really glad Moran was telling the story instead of her; French just seems to be so good at writing a male voice. With The Likeness it felt like French hadn't really found a narrative style that worked: the prose was a messy mixture of rough and smooth, down-to-earth and lyrical, but Broken Harbour made a better job of it, and in The Secret Place it feels like there's a perfect blend at last. The narrative is poetic, but not in a way the no-nonsense characters would scoff at. There are beautiful insights into the mentalities of individuals, particularly when it comes to the close bond between a particular group of young friends. The dynamic between Moran and Conway is excellent too, and flows so perfectly you never doubt it for a moment.

There are a few small issues:
- The girls' language is a bit too Ohmygod-hashtag-like-totes-ewww-WTF at times; occasionally, it almost tips over into parody. While I don't doubt they'd use lots of slang in their own conversation, I can't imagine well-educated 16-year-olds would seriously say stuff like 'totes amazeballs' when giving a statement to two police officers about the murder of someone they knew.
- The Secret Place itself feels more plot-devicey than I'd have liked, and I find it pretty hard to believe most girls of this age would use a noticeboard to post intimate secrets. That said, it's explained well, the narrative answers a lot of the questions the reader might have around its use, and most of the examples given are relatively believable.
- There's a bit of inconsistency about the idea of smartphones and social networking being banned at the school, which is used to explain the existence of the Secret Place to begin with: one girl is described using what is obviously an iPod Touch, and other events show they do at least have phones capable of taking decent quality photos.
- At one point, one of the teenage characters makes a reference to a teen magazine that hasn't existed for a decade.
But these are pretty minor things. I noticed them and thought 'hmmm', but they didn't make the book less enjoyable, or less gripping.

(There are also things about this book that I think you might be better placed to appreciate if you've read all of the Dublin Murder Squad books. There's obviously history between two of the characters, and I haven't read the books they've previously featured in. That doesn't, however, mean you can't read the book as a standalone story.)

One of the things that impressed me about Broken Harbour was that essentially it had really quite a ridiculous, far-fetched premise, but the narrative French wove around it was sinister and frightening, horribly believable, effective. She does the same kind of thing here: in one sense, The Secret Place is a 500-page book about teenage girls fighting over an arrogant and predictably sex-crazed teenage boy. Who cares, right? But the author pulls magic and horror out of the situation; the infinite power of young friendships becomes something otherworldly and terrifying. Despite the fact that the story is narrated by a man, and despite the fact that Chris is the centre of both the investigation and much of the girls' angst, this is an admirably female-focused novel. Like Broken Harbour, The Secret Place is something more than a throwaway crime thriller. There are many things about this novel, its language and its characters, that I'm certain will linger in my memory long after I have forgotten all about the crime element of the plot.

I received an advance review copy of The Secret Place from the publisher through NetGalley.

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