I love actors–Streep is a great example–who transform themselves for each role instead of simply reciting new lines for the same character at every appearance. The Secret Place, Tana French’s latest, shows she has just such versatility as a writer. Broken Harbor, which I reviewed just ahead of this one, took us into the world of a hard-bitten, experienced murder detective investigating the slaughter of an entire family. It involved the standard examination of the murder site, collection of evidence, interview of witnesses, and conflicts among colleagues–all from the point of view of said detective.
The Secret Place involves a single victim in an incident at a high-priced girls’ school more than a year previous to the novel’s opening. We thread our way through multiple points of view including those of several of the girls, a struggling detective on probation, and his boss, who is also a bit of an outcast.
Stephen Moran is our struggling detective who has been awaiting his chance to get out of cold cases and get his foot in the door of the Dublin Murder Squad. In a bit of a desperate move, he throws his lot in with a prickly fringer named Conway who had failed to find a culprit a year earlier. If she goes down on this one, so does he, and it’s back to cold cases for the rest of the career. Lots at stake for both of them.
As for the girls, there are multiple suspects. The occasion for reopening the case is an anonymous card left on a bulletin board. I KNOW WHO KILLED . . . Who left it? Why after a year? Murderer? Not? Great questions with too many answers. We see hints of The Crucible in some of the hysterical scenes among the girls. The dialogue among the students (as far as this unqualified observer can tell) is authentic. Even if it’s not, it’s delicious and exciting and juicily adolescent. French has us moving from on point of view to another without benefit of white space or asterisks, so the journey gets a little confusing sometimes, but I enjoyed that aspect because it so fits the confusion of the situation. Everything looks so much the same–the dress, the hair styles, the attitudes, the answers–much of the time that it’s hard for the detectives to tell them apart. Hard enough for the reader to make it challenging but not impossible by any means.
French’s psychology here plunges even deeper than it does in Broken Harbor, and is much less conclusive. The structure is less conventional as well. She describes a major incident after the narration seems to have concluded. Sort of an epilogue/preface. Not really such a thing, but that never seems to bother Tana French. Didn’t bother me either. Loved it.