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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

Viking Adult, 464 pages, $27.95

I don’t know who first dubbed Tana French’s series the “Dublin Murder Squad” books. It is the only bind the five books share, although some characters appear in more than one book, a main character in one, a shadow of a character in another. There is also a difference in tone, from realistic to borderline otherworldly.

“The Secret Place” is the first of French’s books to cross the line into the out-and-out supernatural, even if it is in a fairly small way. It is her way of expressing the shifting worlds of the teenage years, when everything is potentially possible, when alternate realities might exist, when flawed logic and desperate hope can be made flesh without regret.

It’s probably a game that fans of French play: Sifting through the characters in her current book, can we scope out who will be the next star? After reading “Faithful Place,” a powerful tale of Dublin homicide detective Frank Mackey’s lost love, I picked Stephen Moran, a young, sympathetic detective. But “Broken Harbor,” the next book, focused on another. Well, finally, here’s Stephen’s book, and he IS the star.

As “The Secret Place” starts, maybe six years after the events in “Faithful Place” in which Stephen and Frank Mackey met, Stephen is stuck in a dead-end posting to cold cases, when he longs to belong to the Murder Squad. Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly, a boarding student in a posh girls’ school, brings Stephen a card, posted anonymously on a bulletin board at school, saying the poster knows who killed Christopher Harper, a student at the concomitant boys’ school, a year before.

Stephen takes the card to homicide detective Antoinette Conway, a prickly loner in the Murder Squad. Luckily, she asks him to go with her to St. Kilda’s school to interview the students. Conway was one of the main detectives a year earlier investigating the still-unsolved murder. To Conway’s frustration, she is not fitting into the squad and she needs this case solved. An outcast, she has ulterior motives in temporarily partnering with Stephen.

Stephen, it turns out, has a light touch with the young girls he must interview. He intuitively feels what the best approach to each girl should be. He understands the psychology of friendship and belonging, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to have either in his own life.

Holly is tight with her three roommates, Julia, Rebecca, and Selena. A “rival” gang consists of four other girls, Joanne, Alison, Gemma, and Orla. It becomes clear from the information Stephen and Conway patiently pry out of the girls that one or more of them knows something about Chris and maybe his murder, too. A year ago they had all clammed up. The card Holly found gives the police a new lever, and they aren’t taking “dunno” for an answer.

French tries to get into the minds and syntax of teenage girls. There are a lot of “amazeballs” slung about. (Too bad the echo of the Sprint ad with James Earl Jones and Malcolm MacDowell puts the teenspeak on the level of parody rather than authenticity.) What does ring true is French’s depiction of the strong feelings that teenage friendships engender. Swear on your friendship. Swear on your life. Friends are family too. Friendshp is what is at the heart of the story. It is what keeps the secrets buried. And, finally, it is what builds to the final eruption of revelations.

Especially in French’s first book, “In the Woods,” it wasn’t apparent if there was a supernatural element to the story. Likewise with “The Likeness.” French teeters on the edge between reality and fantasy, but always leaves ambiguity to keep the edge intact. In “The Secret Place,” French explicitly has some minor witchy/twitchy scenes. No ambiguity there. But there are also scenes when some of St. Kilda’s students spot Chris Harper’s ghost. Are they just hysterical or is there really a ghost? Ah, the old girls’ school meme.

Conway is a shrill, awkward character. How did she become a homicide detective? As her professional relationship with Stephen develops over the course of the day (yes, ONE day) in which this story takes place, her strengths are more obvious and her character redeemed. She could be French’s next main character, but I pick Holly Mackey for another adventure of her own. She is 16 or 17 by the time “The Secret Place” ends, and I can see her future, even if she can’t.

Alternating between first-person narration by Stephen of the current investigation and third-person storytelling of what happened around the time of Chris’ death with the eight main girls, French expertly tightens the story, building her reveals to a crescendo and bringing her story to a ringing conclusion. It’s not my favorite of her books so far, primarily because there was a lot of language like this:

“The air is bruised and swollen, throbbing in black and white, ready to split open.”

And not enough:

“I felt the size of the stillness and green all round us. The breadth of it; the height, trees taller than the school. Older.”

Granted, these sentences stem from the same place, but a lot of narration glows from things thrown into the atmosphere, growing, glittering, and shining, and the air is heavy with all the mysterious strands of whatever. Stephen and the girls sense (and see) what to me (putative normal person) would be invisible.

French is a master story builder. No one excels at making her readers thrill at reaching the denouement better than she.

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