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The Secret Place by Tana French: A review
Reviewed in the United States on May 16, 2017
Tana French takes on the fraught atmosphere of a girls' boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin in her fifth entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series. As with the earlier books in the series, this one features a different detective but one that we have met before in an earlier book, Faithful Place, and it includes other characters that we've met before, as well as a new female detective in the Murder Squad, Antoinette Conway.
The detective that we met before is Stephen Moran, who, when we encounter him this time, is working Cold Cases. He is contacted by Holly Mackey, Undercover chief Frank Mackey's daughter, who has information about a murder that took place a year before.
Moran met Holly when she was a nine-year-old and he and his partner were investigating a murder in Faithful Place, where Frank Mackey grew up. Holly is now a 16-year-old and she is attending St. Kilda's School. She is part of a tight-knit group of four girls.
The previous year, a handsome, popular young man from the boys' boarding school next door was killed on St. Kilda's property. His murder was investigated by Antoinette Conway and her partner but they never solved it. Now, Holly brings Stephen a card that she found posted on the school's board called "The Secret Place" where students can post things anonymously. It features a picture of the boy who was killed with the caption, "I know who killed him."
Detective Moran takes the card to the Murder Squad and meets with Detective Conway. She asks him to work with her (she no longer has a partner) and be a fresh pair of eyes on the case to investigate. The two head out to the school to interrogate students once again. The rest of the action in the book takes place on this one single day with flashbacks to the events of the year before.
Most of the investigation is focused on Holly and her three friends and a rival group of four girls. The rival group is the popular clique in the school and Holly and her friends are considered the "freaks."
Recreating the world of teenage girls and their relationships, filled with insecurities, envy, raging hormones, and occasional cruelties must have been a daunting task for French. To accomplish it, she immerses us in teenspeak replete with "OMGs," "awesomesauce," "totes amazeballs," "hello?" at the end of sarcastic statements, and every sentence seems to end with a rising inflection of a question like the stereotypical Valley Girl. Considering the rich inner lives that these girls had, the use of such trite and cliched language was a bit jarring and sometimes downright irritating.
Another thing that irritated me even more about the book was the supernatural aspect to it - the telekinetic powers that some of the girls supposedly had and the appearance of ghosts, none of which really seemed to have a point or to add anything to the plot. The ghosts might be explained by mass hysteria induced in suggestible young people, but still...
The plot was an interesting one. It followed the pattern of French's previous books in that it started ever so slowly and built tension and suspense throughout. I also liked the characters. Conway and Moran made an intriguing team. I wonder if we'll see them again. Holly and her group were a captivating group of teenagers and their relationships with their rivals and with the boys from the neighboring school made for some riveting reading. And in the latter part of the book, we again get to observe Frank Mackey do his thing which is always diverting. But.
But there was just something missing here. It wasn't really up to the high standard that French has set for herself. My initial thought was to award the book three or three-and-a-half stars, but since I don't usually do things by halves and since I am such a generous soul, I decided on four.