★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Here’s how I imagine it went down:
French and her besties are at their high school reunion weekend. They’re sitting around drinking wine and reminiscing when someone decides to pull out the old ouija board from the attic storage. Much to their surprise, they channel Agatha Christie’s voice from Cat Among the Pigeons. Flush with success, they try again, and discover Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (review here).
Alright; maybe I just have my own upcoming reunion on my mind. But I was captivated by the way The Secret Place integrated the turbulent days of youth at a girls’ boarding school with a murder investigation by Dublin’s finest, proving again that French has talent in spades. If there is one thing her prior four books in the Murder Squad series have made clear, French is great at character creation. And atmosphere. Oh, and dialogue. Okay, fine; she’s good at all the components that make a book enjoyable. This time she’s also nailed the police procedural aspects of the case.
The story begins with Holly and her three friends hanging at a playground, musing on the end of summer and their upcoming year together at boarding school. Fast forward to Detective Stephen Moran at the Cold Cases Unit. Holly appears at the police station requesting a meeting with him, six years after when they last met in events covered by The Faithful Place. The exclusive boarding school she resides at has a noticeboard where students can put up anonymous confessions. Holly has found a postcard with an old picture of murder victim Chris Harper. The words “I know who killed him” are pasted across in cut-out letters. Moran seizes the opportunity to wedge his foot in the door of the Murder Squad, and personally takes the note to the case’s lead detective, Antoinette Conway. As she is currently without a partner, he offers her the benefit of his disarming interview skills when she returns to the school to re-interview the students. What follows is an exploration of what led to the death and how the detectives retroactively piece the story together.
The plot timeline is unusual, as it combines the current investigation with viewpoints from the girls and from Chris during the prior year. The investigation takes place within one incredibly busy day, while the events in the girls’ lives cover the entire previous year at school. It’s an interesting kind of time shifting for a murder mystery, but I came to enjoy it. Instead of learning about the prior relationships and circumstances through flashbacks, we live it with four of the girls and the victim, bringing a heightened sense of doom to their daily lives.
Characterization is stellar. The introduction to Murder Squad Detective Conway:
“Antoinette Conway came in with a handful of paper, slammed the door with her elbow. Headed for her desk. Still that stride, keep up or fuck off… Just crossing that squad room, she said You want to make something of it? half a dozen ways.”
Or the (re-) introduction of Detective Frank Mackey:
“I know Holly’s da, a bit. Frank Mackey, Undercover. You go at him straight, he’ll dodge and come in sideways; you go at him sideways, he’ll charge head down.”
Marvelous, really; contrast that with the books that focus on the appearance of the character first, or contain long soliloquies where the character helpfully identifies their history and preferences. In the prior examples, French distills two very different personalities into brief thoughts, so that when we finally meet them, dialogue can be focused and snappy, but still shaded with the layers of meaning from knowing the character. It is a beautiful technique that mirrors real life; if you follow me through my day, I don’t muse on each person interact with; rather, our interactions are defined partially by our history and word choice describing it would reflect it. French’s writing captures that shading without huge, potentially distracting expository swathes.
One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the delicate balance between Moran and Conway. As her fierce personality is evident from the start, I was fascinated by Conway’s attempt to develop a working relationship with her. Initially, Moran is ingratiating himself out of expedience, but it becomes clear Conway understands his intentions. French does a nice job of keeping both Moran and the reader off-balance, guessing at what Conway thinks while having a sense of where it is going.
The setting is immersive, bringing back memories of adolescence in all its insecurities:
“Two years on, though, Becca still hates the Court. She hates the way you’re watched every second from every angle, eyes swarming over you like bugs, digging and gnawing, always a clutch of girls checking out your top or a huddle of guys checking out your whatever. No one ever stays still, at the Court, everyone’s constantly twisting and head-flicking, watching for the watchers, trying for the coolest pose.”
“Darkness, and a million stars, and silence. The silence is too big for any of them to burst, so they don’t talk. They lie on the grass and feel their own moving breath and blood… Selena was right: this is nothing like the thrill of necking vodka or taking the piss out of Sister Ignatius… This is nothing to do with what anyone else in all the world would approve or forbid. This is all their own.”
It is worth noting for those who are new to French that while The Dublin Murder Squad is nominally a series, the connection is through the web of relationships in the police department. Each story tends to focus on a particular member of the squad and their emotional entanglement to the case at hand. Although they may reference events in a prior story, they usually aren’t spoilerish, nor is reading them in order needful. In this case, French seems to draw back from a detective’s emotional dissolution and instead focus on a more positive resolution.
I found The Secret Place to be a complex, satisfying story, delicately balanced between mystery and character story. There was no part that I was even considered skimming, as the flashbacks held as much interest as the police procedural. In fact, reviewing was a challenge, as I kept thumbing through my notes, tempted by my saved passages to re-read. Though I read an advance copy, I suspect this is one I’ll have to add to the paper library.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Viking for providing me an advance copy to review. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the magical writing.