The Secret Place” by Tana French

Tana French’s latest novel, “The Secret Place,” takes place in one day at St. Kilda’s, an elite all-girls boarding school near Dublin, Ireland. In the commons room at St. Kilda’s, there is a bulletin board called the “Secret Place,” where the girls can post secrets, complaints, frustrations — even their innermost thoughts — anonymously.

It is on this bulletin board that Holly Mackey discovers Chris Harper’s photo, along with a note that says, “I know who killed him.” Chris Harper, a boy from a neighboring all-boys school, was murdered on the grounds of St. Kilda’s a year earlier, and the case has gone cold. Holly takes the card to Detective Stephen Moran. Moran played a minor role in “Faithful Place,” French’s first novel.

Detective Moran has been working cold cases but has aspirations of joining the Dublin Murder Squad. Moran teams up with Detective Antoinette Conway, who first worked the case a year ago, only to reach a dead end. Conway is all business. She has an attitude and few friends among the males in the department. Conway is not eager to work with Moran, but she is determined to solve the case this time. Moreover, Moran knows that if they solve the case, it could be his ticket onto the Murder Squad.

Moran and Conway soon narrow their focus to the rivalry between two cliques of teenage girls at St. Kilda’s who despise each other. Holly belongs to the “good-girl” group, along with Julie, Rebecca and Selena. Joanna is the leader of the “evil-girl” group called the Daleks (named after the cyborg villains from Dr. Who).

From their interrogations, both detectives believe most of the girls know more than they are telling. Evidence seems to point to Holly as a suspect. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, the main character from “Faithful Place,” makes a cameo appearance when he arrives on the scene to protect his daughter.

Chris Harper managed to get in the middle of the two feuding groups when he met one of the girls secretly. He gave her a pink flip phone and he had a red phone, and they were only to be used for texting each other. As Moran and Conway delve further into the case, it appears that Chris gave away more than one pink phone and that he saw more than one girl. The tightly held secrets of all the girls begin to be revealed …

I am a huge fan of Tana French’s novels. She excels in her character development and her vivid description of details. In “The Secret Place,” she deviated in style from her previous novels, the most obvious being in the narration, alternating between the past and the present. The past, the point of view of Holly and her friends, explains events that led up to Chris’s death, along with each chapter telling exactly how long Chris has left to live. I found the teen narration to be grating at times with all the teenage slang— ohmygod! Hel-lo?, OMG. Stephen’s narration presents the current point of view and chronicles the investigation and the interaction between himself and Detective Conway.

Tana French writes skillfully about the tangled web of friendship, love and loyalty. This is a well-developed, cleverly plotted mystery, but not a book that you can race through.

“The Secret Place” was a compelling and absorbing read (or listen, in my case), but it ranks as my least favorite of French’s novels. However, if you are a fan of French’s writing, it is definitely worth reading. All of her novels are standalone but carry over one of the characters from the Dublin Murder Squad into her next novel.

I prefer listening to the audiobook versions of French’s novels because I enjoy the Irish dialect and accents. There are two narrators, Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson, and they alternated in the narration.

The Joplin Public Library has “The Secret Place” by Tana French in regular and large print and audiobook formats, and it is available for download from molib2go.org.

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