Monday, March 22, 2021

The Secret Place: Tana French

From the book cover:

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.


Holly Mackey, daughter of a policeman and student at St. Kilda's, brings the new piece of evidence to Stephen Moran, a detective in the Cold Cases division who would really rather be in the Murder Squad. Stephen and Holly have a previous relationship from an earlier case that her father, Frank Mackey, was personally involved in.

Stephen takes the information to Conway in the Murder Squad, who was the primary on the case the year before. They immediately go to St. Kilda's, and start interviewing the girls who had access to The Secret Place at the relevant time. 

The action all takes place in one day. The story is told in alternating narratives. The first is in first person, from the point of view of Stephen Moran. The second narrative (in third person present tense) follows the eight girls, boarders at the school, in the year leading up to the crime and all the way up the point where Holly turns in the photo.

First I will start with what I liked about the book. I especially like the characters in French's books; sometimes it seems like the character exploration is just as important as solving the mystery. Most of the eight students that are important to the story are interesting. Scary kids, not what I remember teenage girls being like when I was in a very non-posh high school in Alabama (in the 1960s), but still interesting. Miss McKenna, headmistress of the school, is a good character. Her primary concern is the reputation of the school, and she is having a very bad day. We don't see a lot of her, but she is important to the plot.

The depiction of the two detectives is very well done. Stephen Moran is the narrator of the portion of the story about the investigation and the interrogations. We know about his goals, his fears, and his good and bad points (at least from his point of view). The reader knows less about Antoinette Conway because we are getting only Stephen's assessment of her and the situation, but she is an intriguing character and she grew on me. And then there is Holly's father, Frank, a policeman in the Undercover Division, who becomes involved later in the story. He is quite a character.

The school setting is excellent. The school takes boarders, the girls board four to a room, and there are two sets of four very close friends that are under suspicion. The girls' families are mostly very well-to-do and the girls are used to getting what they want. 

The rest of my comments are more neutral than negative...

I feel emotionally wrung out when I finish books by Tana French. The ending is usually a downer. The murder is solved, life goes on, but no one ends up happy at the end. That is OK now and then but I would not want a steady diet of that kind of reading.

This book was about 450 pages and took me five days to read. The pacing was good but I had to really focus to keep up with all the characters and the two alternating narratives. 

I do have a bone to pick with the author related to the introduction of some supernatural elements that never seemed to go anywhere or fit into the book. That distracted me and nearly took me out the story completely. However, some readers liked that aspect a lot.

Yet, regardless of any criticisms I have, overall this was a good book, rewarding and with good character development. I liked it a lot. I think I would enjoy rereading this someday. 

See Moira's review at Clothes in Books, John's review at Goodreads, Barbara Fister's review at Reviewing the Evidence.

This is my second read for Reading Ireland Month at Cathy's blog at 746books.


Publisher: Viking, 2014
Length:    452 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Dublin Murder Squad
Setting:    Dublin, Ireland
Genre:     Police Procedural
Source:   Purchased in August 2020.


Kathy D. said...

I like Tana French's books a lot, but not all equally. This was not one of my favorites in the Dublin Murder Squad series. I like the final book in the series, featuring Antoinette Conway, a great, strong woman detective.

If you haven't rleady read The Searcher, you should. It's a stand-alone, but so full of feeling about the Irish land and other people. I was sad when I finished the book, missing the two main characters.

Cath said...

I see this one is book 5 in her Dublin Murders series. Now I read the first book, In the Woods, and liked it a lot, even liked the small supernatural element but, like you said, it went nowhere and I found that a bit unsatisfactory. The reason I never got around to book two was that at the time the plot sounded very similar to a Ruth Rendell (possibly written as Barbara Vine) book I'd just read. So I left it... and left it... and well, you get the idea. Perhaps I'll pick the author up again with her standalone, The Searcher, which sounds rather good and see where I go from there.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I really liked A FAITHFUL PLACE and BROKEN HARBOR. I could never buy into the central conceit of THE LIKENESS. Have not read the last couple. They are exhausting.

TracyK said...

Kathy D, It is good to hear from you. I am looking forward to reading the last book in the series, starring Antoinette Conway. I like strong women detectives.

I haven't yet gotten a copy of The Searchers, but I will getting it and look forward to reading it. I have not read any of Woods' standalone books.

Margot Kinberg said...

I know what you mean about feeling wrung out after reading one of Tana French's books, Tracy. Because the characters are so strong, I think we get invested in them. That can be exhausting, especially, as you say, if the ending isn't a happy one. Still, I really do like her books and her way of building atmosphere and character.

TracyK said...

Cath, It has been so long since I read In the Woods that I remember little about it. I liked each book in the series as I read it. Looking back, I would say Faithful Place is my favorite so far. But that one is sad also. The characters in that book are also in The Secret Place and I liked that.

TracyK said...

Patti, Exhausting is a good way to put it. The reader has to put a lot of effort into Woods' books. That is probably why it takes me a while to get back to reading the series each time I finish one of the books.

TracyK said...

Margot, I think the books by Tana Woods are more realistic because you can't really have a happy ending about a murder. And I feel the pain of those who are left to deal with the resolution in the end.

Katrina said...

I've thought about reading Tana French but if they end on a downer I think I'll dodge them - at the moment anyway.

TracyK said...

Katrina, That is definitely the way the books affected me. I enjoyed reading them but they were intense and, at the end, sad. I did notice that many people reacted differently to the books than I did, in many ways, though.

CLM said...

I am surprised I didn't review this because I so love boarding school stories. I remember thinking the girls were mostly unpleasant but the character of Stephen grew on me as the book went on. I had forgotten it all takes place in one day!

I hope she goes back to the Murder Squad, as I prefer these to her standalones. It was a clever way of doing a series to have a very minor character from the previous book become the protagonist in the next one.

Her book do always end on a down note. As well, I remember my sister was infuriated that French leaves the real question of the first book unsolved.

TracyK said...

Constance, I did check to see if you had reviewed any of French's books, but only found a review of THE SEARCHER. I like the Murder Squad books a lot but haven't tried the standalone books yet. I only have a copy of The Witch Elm.

I found that even the girls in the "nice" group were irritating although Holly was fascinating. At least Julia was interested in school work and doing well in school and what she would be doing afterword. I can remember what I was like at 16 but I wasn't even thinking about college at that stage.

Lark said...

Emotionally wrung out is such a good way to explain the way you feel when you finish one of Tana French's books. I love her writing, but can't take too many of her books all at once. I need time to recover from them. But I still keep going back for more. :)

TracyK said...

Me too, Lark. Looking back at the five books I have read, I guess Broken Harbour was my least favorite but I always get involved in the detectives that are featured.

Ryan said...

I loved the first book in the series, but for some reason I never went on to read the rest of them.

Peggy Ann said...

I've only read the one, In The Woods, and was disappointed we didn't find out what happened to the two children but that's real life, eh? I did enjoy the meatiness of her book though, very much. Good to know up front all her books are this way and to pace my reading of them. Have The Likeness and Faithful Place on the shelf still to read.

TracyK said...

Ryan, I have read the series slowly, just as I found a copy at a reasonable price. Each book is pretty long, but I usually enjoy reading them.

TracyK said...

Peggy, I think you like both of those books that you have. Some people think that The Likeness stretches the ability to suspend disbelief, and I can see why, but I enjoyed it anyway. Faithful Place is my favorite but then I liked them all. (Haven't read the 6th in the series.)

Susan said...

I love Tana French, but you're right, her books are not light, happy reads. I wouldn't be able to read her novels one after the other. Too depressing.

TracyK said...

Susan, I have the last in the series, The Trespasser, but I will hold off at least a few months before reading it.

col2910 said...

I have bought a French book just to give her a try. I keep hearing how good she is. I am put off by the length of them though, calculating I could read two shorter books in the same time - and the two always win out over the one. I like alternating POVs in books.