Tana French is known amongst her fans for her ability to link character to time and place, and to make her characters a mystery along with the murders those characters solve. But she’s also always had a certain fascination with the supernatural, with that which cannot be solved or explained, and in The Secret Place, for the first time, she gives a freer rein to this proclivity.
Another recurring feature of French’s is her use of secondary characters from one book as main characters in another book. Here, Detective Stephen Moran, of 2010’s Faithful Place, is drawn into an unsolved murder by sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey, the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey from that same book. A year ago, a boy from the neighboring boys’ school, Colm’s, was killed on the grounds of Holly’s elite girls’ boarding school, hit in the back of the head with a long-handled garden hoe. The police were unable to find the killer. But just this morning, Holly has found a picture of the boy, pasted over with cut-out letters: “I know who killed him.” She found it on a bulletin board known as “The Secret Place,” where students are allowed to post anonymous messages.
On the surface, Stephen is personable; people like him. But French shows the complexities behind his seemingly simple persona. Some people use friendliness as a way to draw people to them, but Stephen uses it to keep others at arm’s length. In the meantime, however, he is lonely. When Holly comes to him with the photo, he takes it to Murder Squad Detective Antoinette Conway, hoping to impress her enough to keep him on the case and thereby cross over from Cold Cases into Murder. He finds, however, that he respects her and hopes to win her respect in return. They launch a series of interrogations at Holly’s school, the focus of which is Holly’s group of four friends, and a rival group of four other girls.
The chapters alternate between Moran and Conway’s one-day investigation, and flashbacks featuring Holly and her friends, showing us gradually how the murder was committed and how it is solved. It is a testament to French’s plotting that both threads are equally interesting, and we’re never disappointed to have to temporarily drop one in order to pick up the other.
Conway, as the only woman on the Murder squad, maintains a cold exterior as a means of protection against the derision and discrimination she faces from the rest of the squad. When another officer grabs her ass, she doesn’t laugh it off and pretend to be one of the guys. She bends his finger back and tells him next time, she’ll break it. (One hopes Conway will appear as a main character in a future French novel.)
Holly and her friends, as young women, navigate related difficulties. After her friend Julia is sexually assaulted by a boy at the neighboring boys’ school, Holly, along with Julia and their friends Rebecca and Selena, swear off men until college. The oath has more than sexual implications: it is their pact that they will not meet the expectations others have of them.
“Oh God,” Julia says. “I can hear it now. They’re gonna say we’re some kind of lesbian orgy cult.”
“So?” Selena says. “They can say what they want. We won’t have to care.”
A breathtaken silence, as that sinks in. Their minds race wild along its trail. They see Joanne wiggling and giggling and sneering in the Court to make the Colm’s guys fancy her, they see Orla howling helpless into her sodden pillow after Andrew Moore and his friends ripped her apart, they see themselves trying desperately to stand right and dress right and say the right things under the guys’ grabbing eyes, and they think: Never never ever, never never never again. Break that open the way superheroes burst handcuffs. Punch it in the face and watch it explode.
My body my mind the way I dress the way I walk the way I talk, mine all mine.
A commitment to such a way of being has enormous power for any woman, but the girls start to notice a more tangible form of power as lights go on and off, seemingly at their command. A metal key turns hot enough to be painful to the touch. Small objects levitate. French never states whether these occurrences are imaginary or real, but she does make it clear that it doesn’t matter either way. She understands that there are things we believe in absolutely as children, that as adults we might disbelieve with equal certainty. She takes one risk in allowing a certain space for the impossible to happen, and takes a further risk in allowing Stephen, as an outsider to Holly’s world by sex, age, and class, to peer at this alternate reality sideways and glimpse how it might work. His ability to change perspectives mirrors the leap he will have to make in looking at his own relationship with Conway, and is essential if he is to solve the murder.
The Secret Place is perhaps the most fantastical of French’s novels. It is not as gritty in atmosphere or scenery as Faithful Place, or as bleak in its outlook as Broken Harbour. In this novel, French asks her readers for more of a leap than she has ever asked before, to see that certain relationships create their own higher law that stands outside of consensual reality. It is an act of great trust, to be sure, but it is more than worth it.