The Secret Place: Too Claustrophobic and Too Many Characters

Tana French
Viking 978-0670026326, 464 pp.
* * ½ 

I've become a big fan of Tana French's Dublin Murder Mystery series, but The Secret Place (#5), is easily the weakest link thus far. This time setting is St. Kilda, a Catholic girls' boarding school for the spoiled spawn of the Irish haute bourgeoisie (and wannabes) plopped down in a sylvan glen on Dublin's outskirts. In the sort of logic guaranteed to keep the Catholic Church atop the list of the world's most illogical institutions, it sits cheek-by-jowl with its boys' counterpart, Colm's. Both schools have strict non-fraternization rules because, as we all know, dutiful 14-18 year-olds are too busy with the rosary to think about sex. Sex couldn't have had anything to do with the murder of 16-year-old dream hunk Christopher Harper, right?

 Dublin Detectives Thomas Costello and Antoinette Conway failed to bring a prosecution in that case, a major factor in Costello being quietly "retired" from the police and the humorless Conway remaining partnerless a year later. Harper's files are sent to "Cold Cases," a purgatory for an ambitious lad such as Stephen Moran, who wants to move into the action and prestige of the murder squad. When 15-year-old Holly Mackey shows up, it looks as if Moran may get his chance. Holly, a St. Kilda student and daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (from The Faithful Place), is there to present Stephen with a new clue on the Harper case: a card she liberated in good forensic style from her school's student bulletin board—the namesake Secret Place–on the one-year anniversary of Harper's death. Its message, in pasted on letters cut from a book, reads: "I know who killed him."
The icy Conway isn't sure she wants any part of Moran, whom she correctly thinks is just angling for promotion, but he can play the "good cop" in ways incompatible with her curmudgeonly demeanor, so he's along for a 24-hour ride inside a world neither of them could have imagined growing up on the working-class side of the Liffey. The key to cracking the case hinges on who posted the card to the Secret Place after hours when it was inaccessible to students. It will surprise few to learn that St. Kilda was not as 'secure' as its adult staff thought! It also becomes apparent that the card could have only been pinned to the board by eight girls: members of rival cliques, one of which is Holly's inner circle.
Unless you've spent time in such a private school, you do not know the meaning of 'vicious,' but are any of these smart-ass, foul-mouthed, narcissistic girls capable of murder? We are drawn deep into both cliques: Holly is the most intelligent of the eight, but even she turns bitchy when she demurs to the scheming, wise-cracking Julia Harte, who lords over her, the dreamy Selena Wynne, and the gauche-but-about-to-bud Rebecca O'Mara. All four claim to have sworn off dating, largely because the only guys they see are Colm's students, who are as awkward as they and suffer from testosterone poisoning to boot. But what Julia's brood really hates is Joanne Heffernan's clique. Joanne is Svengali-like in the way that she manipulates dimwitted Orla Burgess, compliant Alison Muldon, and flirty Gemma Harding. Joanne's airhead crew is so obsessed with popularity that they look and dress alike. Holly's lot has nicknamed them the "Daleks," as if they were the cyborg race from Doctor Who. The only thing all eight agree upon is that Chris was such a hunk that he couldn't possibly have been dating anyone from the other clique. Moran and Conway aren't buying that, but it won't be easy separating the murderer from the framers.
Sound complex? It is, and not always in a good way. The novel is often claustrophobic. Chapters alter between a series of interrogations that take place over one very long day and flashbacks to the shenanigans and intrigue that took place in the months leading to Chris' death. Still, we never venture off the St. Kilda campus. You can feel the walls closing in as we near revelation, but I too started to feel weary by then. Ms. French is a skillful writer, but there's literally not enough space for much to happen.
Toward the end, Holly's father makes a dramatic appearance. This means that the novel has a dozen (including Chris) major characters and, frankly, that's four or five too many. Even at  440+ pages, you quickly eliminate numerous suspects because their characters aren't well enough developed to make them credible villains. There's also ghost hysteria thrown in that's too silly to play the role French assigns.
I finished The Secret Place. I didn't resent spending my time doing so, but I probably could have done something more productive. I admire the fact that French's detectives are flawed people, not Sherlock-like deductive geniuses, but what I took away from this book is that Irish police methods are very different from those in America, that private schools are Dickensian nightmares, and that children should be cryogenically frozen from ages 14 to 18. That's probably not what French had in mind. Read it or skip it; it will neither shatter nor rock your world.  Rob Weir

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