By Tana French
Viking 452 pp. $27.95
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Reviewed by Katherine Bailey
St. Kilda's is a private, all-girls boarding school in a quiet, leafy suburb of Dublin. Across the road and two high walls away is the all-boys school, St. Colm's. It is in this isolated compound that award-winning crime writer Tana French has set her latest mystery, The Secret Place, due out on Tuesday.
Like her four previous works, The Secret Place is more than a whodunit. It is an elegantly written psychological thriller that features vivid, evocative, even lyrical prose, as well as a clever plot. French's interest is not so much in depicting blood and gore as it is in exploring a killer's motivation.
The title, The Secret Place, refers to a bulletin board on the top floor of St. Kilda's where the girls can anonymously post what's on their minds. As the novel opens, someone has posted a card attached to a photo of Chris Harper, a Colm's boy who was found murdered on the St. Kilda's grounds one year ago. On the card is written, "I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM."
Student Holly Mackey finds the card and brings it to Dublin Detective Stephen Moran, whom she knows from a previous case in which she was a witness. The investigation of the murder of the handsome and popular Chris is reopened, and the photo card becomes vitally important.
Moran, the book's narrator, wades through the secrets, lies, relationships, and rivalries of teenage girls with Detective Antoinette Conway, an abrasive woman who is surely the novel's most compelling character. The nuanced portrayal of the relationship between the deferential and tentative Moran and the arrogant, short-tempered - but well-meaning - Detective Conway is one of the book's best features.
In the early chapters of The Secret Place, Moran and Conway meticulously interview girl after girl, trying to sift fact from rumor. The interviews seem repetitive, but once they're out of the way, the plot becomes gripping.
Holly has three close friends - Julia, Becca, and Selena. The gang of four is tightly knit and impeccably loyal to one another. Julia is "not a supermodel, but she's got plenty of attitude." Becca's a late bloomer, "still at boys are icky and the whole thing's embarrassing," meaning sex. Flute-playing Selena is beautiful and fragile, both physically and emotionally. She's vigilantly protected by the others.
For a time, Chris and Selena are dating. A rival group of four, whose boss is Joanne, displays proprietary feelings about him. Before Selena, Chris had dated Joanne. Halfway into the novel, the detectives agree that any one of the eight girls could have committed the murder. Any one of them could have posted the photo card.
French sprinkles hints that Joanne is the guilty party. One of the girls, when questioned by Detective Conway, notes, "Joanne was going out with Chris for a couple of months, before last Christmas. Then he dumped her flat on her arse. She didn't like that one little bit."
Skilled at fostering suspense, French opens almost every chapter with a statement declaring how long Chris Harper has to live:
"Late in January, half-past ten at night. Fifteen minutes till lights-out, for third-years and fourth-years at Kilda's and at Colm's. Chris Harper - brushing his teeth, half thinking about the cold soaking into his feet from the tiled floor of the bathroom . . . has just four months left to live."
A Valentine's Day dance at St. Kilda's is pivotal to the book's plot:
"Two hundred third- and fourth-years from Kilda's and Colm's, shaved and waxed and plucked, carefully anointed with dozens of substances in every color and texture, dressed up in their agonized-over best and sky-high on hormones and smelling of two hundred different cans of body spray, crammed into the Kilda's school hall. . . . Chris Harper - there in the middle of the crowd, in the red shirt, shoulder-bumping and laughing with his friends to get the girls' attention - has three months, a week, and a day left to live."
As an experienced writer, French occasionally slows down the story's action to include essential and seamless digressions and detours. For example, she portrays Holly's parents' on-again-off-again marriage. And one of the novel's delights is the manner in which French allows her factual observations and assertions to flower into vivid description, shedding light on notions of friendship, loyalty, and personal identity, and on one of the greatest human mysteries - murder.