- - Thursday, October 2, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SECRET PLACE
By Tana French
Viking, $27.95, 464 pages

It is as surreal as it is secret, the teenage world portrayed here in the most chilling terms. The question of who murdered handsome Chris Harper becomes far less intriguing than the journey through psychological darkness to find out who did it and why.

Tana French is a riveting writer who takes her readers deep into the emotions of her characters and evokes understanding if not sympathy for teens who torture themselves as much as those around them. Her method of offering up thoughts and dialogue holds attention although at times it seems repetitive and even a little tedious.

Nevertheless, her Dublin murder squad with its focus on Inspector Frank Mackey and his teenage daughter Holly is a mine of information for the mystery addict. She adeptly uses younger detective Stephen Moran, partnering him with the tough-minded Antoinette Conway, who is already a member of the murder squad, in a fencing game with the veteran Mackey, who finds himself faced with the possibility of his daughter’s involvement in a killing.

Ms. French also does an excellent job portraying the elite girls’ school of St. Kilda with its population of troubled teenagers ripe for sex with the boys at the neighboring school of Colm. She captures the malevolence of the mean girls and their potential for present and future cruelty, and she also explores the painful sensitivity of those who are hurt by their fellow students. The secret place is the school’s rather ham-fisted effort to encourage unhappy or worried students to post notices of their misery or their guilt on a bulletin board, which is monitored by the staff and read by everyone, innocent or not.

It is an anonymous message claiming knowledge of who killed Chris Harper months earlier that brings the murder squad back to St. Kilda’s as represented by detectives Moran and Conway. Conway sees the assignment as an opportunity to escape from the cold cases department to the more prestigious homicide group. She is fiercely territorial and does not welcome the partnership with Moran, who does not share her contempt for the young women, most of whom come from pampered wealth and have little respect for those who don’t. It is the class system in miniature, and there is nothing kind or gentle about how it operates. Those who get by must survive vicious bullying, and those who don’t tend to shrivel up.

Ms. French, when interviewed about the book, commented shrewdly and succinctly when she said, “I think adolescence is the same place no matter where you go to school, whether you’re a boy or a girl. It is a strange, supercharged zone where reality’s borderlines aren’t as fixed as they are for adults and everything is critically important because you’re desperately trying to figure out who you are, but who you’re going to allow to define that . You need to find a balance.”

Finding a balance between personalities also underscores the problems and the attitudes of the two detectives. While doubtful and distrustful of Moran as an interloper, Conway comes to respect his capacity for compassion, perhaps comparing its results with her own inclination to hammer out the truth. The combination of Mackey and his willful child Holly points up the fact that their relationship survives intergenerational distrust. He is a most engaging character and his interplay with Moran is smoothly done. He encourages the younger detective to take risks in his investigative technique while making clear he will take no nonsense from him, yet Moran knows that Mackey will accept the truth no matter how grim it may be.

The strength of the author’s prose carries the book, especially when she describes the beauty of the school and its surroundings, where some of the students find consolation and comfort in discovering real friendship and concern for each other. It is a book where you don’t stop turning pages, and it is hard to put it down.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.


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