Every now and again, I get in the mood for a good detective story. I don’t read widely in the genre, so I usually sift through what’s currently popular and find something that sounds interesting. That’s how I came across Tana French. I read the first Dublin murder Squad book, In the Woods, and enjoyed it quite a bit, even thought the main character was a complete prat. Her writing is at times lovely and its great to find unexpected pleasures. In a detective book mood this week, I picked up French’s The Secret Place, the 5th book in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In many ways The Secret Place is better than In the Woods. In many other ways, The Secret Place felt like a guilty pleasure read. I have a secret love for movies and sometimes books nostalgic about childhood friendships that I rarely indulge. One of my favorite movies is Now and Then with Christina Ricci and Demi Moore. I grew up reading the Babysitters books, and I had a tight group of friends. Not quite as tight as the girls in The Secret Place, but we were a pack nonetheless.
My nostalgia kicked in the moment we meet Holly Mackey (a character in a previous Dublin Murder Squad book) getting ready to head off to boarding school with her 3 best friends. I could tell right away that this book was going to tap into that magic of friendship (I also watch My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with my kids) with a good dose of creep and maybe terror; it is a murder mystery after all. And I wasn’t disappointed. Holly, Rebecca, Selena, and Julia are four very close-knit girls at a private, all-girl boarding school, St. Kilda’s, full of cliques and hormones and all that fun stuff I don’t miss about being a teenager. This story is partly their growth as friends, and partly straight detective story. French balances these two narratives nicely in alternating chapters. The detective story is set in the present and moves forward toward resolution, while the friendship story is told in the past and moves toward the beginning of the detective story.
Murder Detective Conway and cold-case Detective Stephen Moran team up when Holly Mackey brings Stephen a card that says in cut out words “I know who killed him,” in reference to a teenage boy found dead on the boarding school’s grounds over a year ago. What follows for Moran and Conway is a day-long journey through the tenuous and sometimes scary world of teenagers as they try to figure out who wrote the card and who killed Chris Harper, the boy found dead on St. Kilda’s grounds. Conway worked the case previously, but they never found the murderer, and Moran thinks solving it now is his shot at making the Murder Squad.
French is an acute observer of human relationships and follies, as she’s displayed in her other novels. Taking on the world of teenage female friendships and all the fraught emotional drama (and sometimes trauma) is a large venture. While her portrait of Conway and Moran is solid and believable, as well as the other adults in the novel, her portraits of some of the girls didn’t quite hit the mark. Her four misfits, Holly & Co. are fairly well rounded her mean girls come right off every stereotype about mean girls we already know. She does a good job of anatomizing the posturing and posing they do every moment they have an audience, but they are still as vapid and soulless as their stereotypes make them out to be.
This dynamic is the guilty-pleasure aspect of the book for me. It offers a window into something nostalgic from my past but also exciting and terrifying because the stakes are so high. It’s also slightly voyeuristic in its close following and understanding of the relationships of teenage girls. The kind of friendship the misfits have is powerful, dangerous, and wonderful all at the same time, just as in Now and Then. It’s also ephemeral, and watching its growth and dissolution is very intimate. That, for me, is one of the great strengths of French’s writing and of her stories. She gets so close to her characters and makes (most) of them feel so real that they stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. These protagonists were much more compelling for me than the characters of In The Woods, but her writing and sense of atmosphere is what drew me back to her. I’ve already picked up Faithful Place and I hope it will satisfy that detective craving just as well when it hits.