The Secret Place by Tana French

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Tana French has got her groove back, thank goodness. I really didn’t like her last book (Broken Harbor) but this one had me staying up late and reading on my work breaks to find out whodunit. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you.)

If you’ve never read Tana French, you can start with any book – they are all loosely connected by way of being about someone in the Dublin Murder Squad, but since each novel stands alone and features different detectives, there are no real spoilers. If you are only going to read one of her books, try The Likeness (if you like suspense) or Faithful Place (if you like complicated family drama). Of course if you’re a purist and intend to read them all, start with her first, In the Woods. It doesn’t matter where you start, they’re all good (as long as you avoid Broken Harbor).

The Secret Place’s protagonist is detective Stephen Moran. We met Moran initially in Faithful Place, but now he is working in Cold Cases. One morning, the daughter of his former mentor Frank Mackey comes to him with a card she found – a card with a picture of Chris Harper, a boy who was murdered on the grounds of her school, St Kilda’s, over a year ago. The card reads “I know who killed him.” Moran isn’t on the Murder Squad, but he wants to be. He shows the card to Antoinette Conway, whose case it was before it went cold over a year ago. Her partner on that case has since retired, so she grudgingly accepts Moran as temporary sidekick. They drive out to St Kilda’s to investigate, and what follows is a roller-coaster ride where he and Conway encounter defensive nuns, warring mean girl cliques, and what seem like endless layers of deception. Moran and Conway don’t know each other, so they are constantly trying to feel each other out on the fly and aren’t sure how far to trust one another – if at all. And as the evidence starts to implicate Holly, her father gets involved and Stephen has to decide whether to risk career suicide by offending his former boss or bail.

The most intriguing aspect of this story is the very real threats Stephen faces while working this case. First of all, he isn’t on the Murder Squad, and his involvement could be interpreted as poaching. Second, Conway is an outsider in the Murder Squad – the men have never accepted her, and are actively trying to drive her out. Aligning himself with her could be genius if they solve the case, but if they don’t, he may as well go back to being a uniformed cop. As a person of a lower social class and as a man, he has to be extra careful dealing with the girls at St. Kilda’s, who can so easily destroy him with any hint of impropriety on his part. He dances delicately, and it’s fun to watch.

What reads like this book? Hmmm. Some of the characters remind me of Gillian Flynn’s younger characters in both Sharp Objects and Dark Places. The fierce friendship between the girls and the isolation of their school life reminded me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but that’s a stretch.

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