I am, unabashedly, a genre reader. I love to read mysteries, fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, the occasional dollop of science fiction and every now and then a quirky, funny romance. While I like beautiful prose as much as the next reader, gorgeous prose only takes me so far – if it’s not accompanied by an interesting plot and well-developed characters, it’s hard for me to keep plugging away at it.
When I want beautiful prose for its own sake, I’d much rather turn to poetry.
With Tana French’s mysteries, a reader like me comes away very satisfied. There’s plot, there’s great character development – and then there’s words used so well, so beautifully, so elegantly, phrases and snippets of sentences stay with you for days after you’ve finished the book, lingering in your mind, like a taste of memory, almost but not quite tangible.
French’s most recent book, The Secret Place, doesn’t fail in all three regards: plot, character and writing. Number 5 in the “Dublin Murder Squad” series, it’s not necessary to have read the previous books first before opening up this one. There is no main series protagonist the way there is in other mystery series. Instead, the loose thread tying each of the books is the fact that the characters are homicide detectives on Dublin’s Murder Squad, and after the first book, the main character in each subsequent book has been a character who first showed up in a previous book in the series.
The The Secret Place stars Detective Stephen Moran, not yet on the Murder Squad but seeing his chance in this case, and Detective Antoinette Conway, who is on the Murder Squad but with a reputation of not being “one of the boys”, fueled largely by the fact that she is a woman.
The murder takes place at St. Kilda’s, an exclusive all-girls boarding school. Adding a wrinkle to the investigation is the involvement of Holly Mackay, the daughter of Detective Frank Mackay, with whom Stephen had worked previously in Faithful Place. The victim, found dead on the lawns of St. Kilda’s, is a boy from a neighbouring boys’ school.
While the story takes place in one day filled with interviews at St. Kilda’s, each of the interview scenes is followed by a scene set among the students in the year leading up to the murder. It’s a daring structure, and French pulls it off elegantly and beautifully, leaving the reader with a feeling of effortlessness as we are taken back and forth between the two timelines, never confused, never at a loss as to what has happened.
What left me in awe, though, was French’s handling of the characters. In addition to the two detectives, the novel focuses on eight teenaged girls, all students of St. Kilda’s. French deftly brings each of the girls to life, so that even in passages without benefit of some identifying feature, it’s easy to know who the characters are.
The story is well-plotted, leaving you wondering for much of the novel as French plants suspicions here, there and everywhere. French also adds a touch of possible magic in a “is it? isn’t it?” way that is pure magic in itself, adding yet another layer to an already beautifully intricate story. It’s just a touch of magic, and to my mind, is a perfect fit for those short wonder years of teenaged girldom, where so much around us is touched with possibility and potential.
And as for the writing … When I first started reading The Secret Place, I wanted to jot down lines that sent shivers down my spine. After a while, though, I realized if I did that, I’d end up writing down most of the book. You can flip to almost any page at random in The Secret Place and find some bit of description that will linger on in your mind. You can almost taste that year at St. Kilda’s, the way the girls’ lives are intertwined as I can only imagine must happen within the confines of a boarding school, how they’ve grown, matured, deepened.
I just flipped through to a random page in my ebook copy, and this is what popped out at me:
“None of them would ever have imagined what they had brushed up against; what other selves, other lives, other deaths were careening ferocious and unstoppable along their tracks, only a sliver of time away. The grounds are pocketed with clusters of girls, all blazing and amazed with inchoate love for one another and for their own growing closeness; none of the others will feel the might of that swerve as the tracks switch and their own power takes them barreling into another landscape.”
This kind of writing occurs throughout the novel. A beautiful read with an enjoyable, engrossing mystery. I’m looking forward to the next Tana French book!