8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

Title: The Secret Place

Author: Tana French

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Publisher: Viking (US) / Hodder (UK)
Publication Date: September 2 / August 28 2014
Hardcover: 528 Pages

The Secret Place The Secret Place

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The Secret Place is a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.

Stand alone or series: Can be read as a standalone novel but is book 5 of related-but-not-sequels Dublin Murder Squad series

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print Review Copy

Why did I read this book: I had never heard of Tana French (I KNOW) but then I got an awesome pitch for this book – I was sent an ARC with a note saying how awesome it was and to keep an eye out for page 187. It worked and I got curious.

Review:

It’s going to be difficult to cover everything about this book but here is a good starting point: The Secret Place blew my mind. It’s the fifth book in Tana French’s ongoing Dublin Murder Squad series but my first Tana French book altogether 1.

It’s been one year since popular teenage boy Chris Harper was found murdered on the grounds of the posh St. Kilda’s, a girl’s boarding school in the suburbs of Dublin and the case has gone cold. One morning, one of St Kilda’s students, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey (the daughter of a recurring character, Frank Mackey) walks into Stephen Moran’s office bringing him a photo of Chris with the caption I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Holly found the photo pinned up at St Kilda’s School’s Secret Place, a board where the girls can pin up their unspoken secrets and fears anonymously. Stephen, a minor character from Faithful Place, who had being working cold cases, sees this as an opportunity to move to the Murder Squad, partnering up with hardened murder Detective Antoinette Conway to reopen the case.

Determining the time that the photo is likely to have been posted is but the first step and then everything leads them back to two different groups of girls, one of them Holly’s own close-knit group of friends.

Set in the grounds of St Kilda’s for the duration of one day, the narrative is mostly from Stephen’s viewpoint but interspersed by flashbacks of Holly’s group leading up to the murder. The novel’s progression divided as it is in this dual narrative timeline is incredibly, fantastically tense and richly layered.

Because despite how the murder case in itself is actually pretty good, The Secret Place is in fact, a brilliant, astute psychological study taking place against a backdrop of patriarchy, misogyny, class differences and more.

The girls of St Kilda’s, specially the two main groups of girls, are deftly characterised with sympathy and compassion, their arcs engaging thoughtfully with prejudice and stereotypical notions of girlhood. Most of them think of, engage with, react to, the way that our society expects girls to behave – some of them absorb and internalise these notions, some of them actively question those roles. Friendship that are close-knit, dependable, life-saving are central to this story. Another strong focus is the harmful, negative way with which those notions affect teenage lives – both boys and girls.

One of the most effective ways of presenting all of this is by showing not only their inner lives and internal monologues as unique to each girl but also by providing a counterpoint with the way that Stephen engages them. He is very astute and observant but at times, also extremely biased and judgemental. A telling moment is when he is first interviewing the girls and his attempts at pining them all down by comparing them all to girls he met before when he was a teenager. Needless to say, this does not work that well for Stephen. That judgemental side of him also almost ruins his budding partnership with Detective Conway.

The interesting dynamics between the two detectives and how their relationship progresses from uneasy partnership to a point where they can rely on each other is another strong focus of the plot and equally well, awesome. Detective Conway made my heart go all pitter-patter and I loved the snippets of her difficulties as a female detective within the murder squad, specially her struggles with being accepted as a part of the in-crowd without having to put up with casual sexism and harassment. Laughing it off as just a “boy will be boys” thing is just not an option for her, causing her to develop a reputation as a humourless shrew.

Another source of conflict in the novel are the questions of class and privilege. The girls’ lives are much insulated. The detectives offer a counterpoint as working class people. Interestingly, Stephen yearns for a glimpse of this posh world, wanting desperately the beautiful things in display. Conway wants no such thing. Please Tana French, can we have the next book centred on Detective Conway?

On the downside, two points stand-out. One is the lack of obvious LGBT characters – a girls only school and no lesbian relationship? Also, no PoC characters as far as I could tell.

The other is the introduction of magic realism half way through the novel. I feel I should engage with this aspect of the novel even though it completely spoils one of the most shocking elements of the book. This next paragraph contains SPOILERS! LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED.

+++ Spoiler +++

At around page 180, it is revealed that Holly’s group of friends have developed paranormal powers. They can make things float in the air, affect electricity, etc.

Because this is so completely unexpected it ends up being – at first – a cool mind-blowing twist that reinforces the idea of these girls’ closeness and friendship. However, upon reflection, I am not sure it works. It adds nothing to the actual story and in fact this element arguably makes the girls “other.”
It implies that they – with their strong sense of self, their understanding of patriarchy – are so different, so unique, that they are not normal. Which…leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

+++ Spoiler ends +++

Those two points are the only discordant elements in an otherwise harmonious, incredible novel. After reading it, I proceeded to acquire and devour all of her books.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Holly dumped her schoolbag on the floor. Hooked a thumb under her lapel, to point the crest at me. Said, ‘I go to Kilda’s now.’ And watched me.

St Kilda’s: the kind of school the likes of me aren’t supposed to have heard of. Never would have heard of, if it wasn’t for a dead young fella.

Girls’ secondary, private, leafy suburb. Nuns. A year back, two of the nuns went for an early stroll and found a boy lying in a grove of trees, in a back corner of the school grounds. At first they thought he was asleep, drunk maybe. The full-on nun-voice thunder: Young man! But he didn’t move.

Christopher Harper, sixteen, from the boys’ school one road and two extra-high walls away. Sometime during the night, someone had bashed his head in.

Enough manpower to build an office block, enough overtime to pay off mortgages, enough paper to dam a river. A dodgy janitor, handyman, something: eliminated. A classmate who’d had a punch-up with the victim: eliminated. Local scary non-nationals seen being locally scary: eliminated.

Then nothing. No more suspects, no reason why Christopher was on St Kilda’s grounds. Then less overtime, and fewer men, and more nothing. You can’t say it, not with a kid for a victim, but the case was done.

Holly pulled her lapel straight again. ‘You know about Chris Harper,’ she said. ‘Right?’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Were you at St Kilda’s back then?’

‘Yeah. I’ve been there since first year.’

And left it at that, making me work for every step. One wrong question and she’d be gone, I’d be thrown away: got too old, another useless adult who didn’t understand. I picked carefully.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Kaleidoscope anthology

Buy the Book:

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Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, itunes

  1. I KNOW

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15 Comments

  • Stuti
    September 2, 2014 at 9:05 am

    A book on Conway would awesome. But I think my favorite was Mackey-he has a book to himself but I haven’t read it yet-especially when he tells Moran that he’ll kill him if the latter’s suspicions about Holly turn out to be true. I think I might have swooned a little. 😛

    As to the magical realism aspect, I think French always incorporates some inexplicable facet to her thrillers-well, there was one in the very first book, so my basis remains solely these two books.

    Do give the rest of her books a try! I hope you love In the Woods. Aaagh, that book was just so balls-y. I still suffer. ;(

  • Amanda @ Go Book Yourself
    September 2, 2014 at 10:18 am

    This series is getting a lot of attention! I’d love to read it but I have a million books to finish! Great review!

  • Amaryllis
    September 2, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Because despite how the murder case in itself is actually pretty good, The Secret Place is in fact, a brilliant, astute psychological study taking place against a backdrop of patriarchy, misogyny, class differences and more.

    That is to say, it’s a Tana French novel! They’re all good, but I especially liked Faithful Place, Frank Mackey’s book.

    Come to think of it, Stephen Moran was an important supporting character in that book. I’m glad to hear he has a book of his own.

  • Mary Alexandra Agner
    September 2, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Try Broken Harbor, I thought it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  • Alethea
    September 2, 2014 at 11:13 am

    OMG how could you not have heard of Tana French? 😯 I couldn’t sleep for a week after In the Woods. I really need to catch up. Great review!

  • jillheather
    September 2, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Read in order, read in order! They’re not sequels, but the links are much deeper if you do it that way, and honestly I think The Likeness depends a lot on In The Woods, and Broken Harbour depends a lot on Faithful Place (character-wise, not plot). This one also depends on Faithful Place; some of Frank and Stephen will make more sense that way. (And, of course, it slightly spoils the earlier book.)

    That said, I also loved the entire book except the supernatural thing, which did not appear anywhere else. I have decided to believe it was entirely imaginary on the girls’ part. (It is, however, weaker than Faithful Place or Broken Harbour, and though it might be a better book I liked it less than In The Woods. Still: great book, must read author.)

  • Grace_Omega
    September 2, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    I was massively frustrated by French’s first book In The Woods, which presented an extremely intriguing mystery (also heavily implying some sort of supernatural or magical realist angle) which it then never actually resolved, instead occupying itself with a fairly mundane murder mystery and two main characters who become intensely unsympathetic and annoying as the book goes on.

    This does sound interesting, though.

    “Also, no PoC characters as far as I could tell.”

    That’s both dissapointing and very unrealistic for a story set in Dublin.

  • jenn aka the picky girl
    September 2, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I am a huge Tana French fan, and after the last book which blew my mind (and totally freaked me out), this one was a huge disappointment. The magic element (didn’t really feel like magical realism to me) was completely out of left field with, as you mention, no real point to it. Major, major problem for me.

    The other part was that the way it was structured, even though action occurred in the telling of the friends/Christopher, nothing much happened. It felt static and uninteresting, and I knew – pretty early on – exactly who the killer would be. That’s an even more major problem.

    So not a winner for me, but I still love her writing.

  • Sofronie
    September 9, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Ooh, this sounds really interesting! I’ve got Tana French’s In the Woods right on my desk and I can’t wait to start it soon.

    I do hope there will be more diversity of all kinds (applies to pretty much every media), but at the same time though, why does the fact that at an all girl’s school there has to be an obvious lesbian relationship? I would love for there to be one, but I also would love it for it to be set anywhere – it just seems like another stereotype and I believe we can do better than that.

  • kimberlybuggie
    September 11, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Great review! I have loved this author since her first book. But I have to say that the one that really got me was Faithful Place. It’s my favorite one of hers. I hope you read the others too. I can’t wait to start reading this! 🙂

  • valerie
    October 18, 2014 at 10:25 am

    PLEASE GIVE ME THE ENDING: I had to return book before I read the ending. I know who did it, but why? thanks!!!

  • mike
    November 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    becca in her mind she was right to proctect her mates from having to go through what Chris had done to the other girls. She said that she would do the same thing again

  • Amaryllis
    February 18, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    Okay, I know it’s six months after the fact, but I finally read the book. And in regard to the supernatural elements, I don’t think it’s the girls themselves who are meant to be so “other.”

    It’s just that if you make a group vow of chastity in a cypress grove with the moon as witness, you may attract the notice of something that is genuinely Other.

    And when a male person intrudes in that Secret Place after that, it can’t end well.

  • Liz Tilton
    April 5, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    I understand Becca did the murder but at the very end holly is making another card to hang on the secret place why?

  • Jerry
    April 29, 2017 at 10:09 am

    No, this is Holly writing the ORIGINAL card. Even-numbered chapter, third-person present-tense narration, following the chronology of events leading up to and (in the final chapter) after the murder. With this chapter the even-numbered “past” narrative catches up with the main story narrated by Stephen Moran.

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