“Young girls slip between worlds very easily, Detective.”
I missed Tana French’s first three crime novels concerning the Dublin Murder Squad (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place), but I caught up with her for number 4: Broken Harbor, a book so good, it made my best-of-2012-list. The story of Broken Harbor is haunting; it was one of the best new crime books I’d read in ages, and yes, it was a page-turner, but the book was a lot more than that; it was also an exploration of human nature and how some of us deal with crisis.
The problem is that when a book such as Broken Harbor is that good, you start wondering if the author can hit the same stride for the next novel, and that brings me to The Secret Place–a book which is going to make my best of 2014 list. While Broken Harbor concerned the murder of an entire family in a seaside ghost estate, The Secret Place concerns the murder of a teenager, a boarder at an elite boys’ school.
Detective Moran is stuck working cold cases when Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of Frank Mackey (from Faithful Place), and a boarder at St Kilda’s girls’ school, arrives with evidence in the cold case murder of sixteen-year-old Christopher Harper. The year before, Christopher, the son of a wealthy banker, and a boarder at St. Colm’s, an equally elite boarding school for boys, was found murdered on the grounds of St Kilda’s. Various theories floated throughout the investigation at the time, none proved, and the case remained unsolved. Holly arrives in Moran’s office with a card which includes a picture of Christopher and the words “I know who killed him.” She tells Moran that she found the card posted on “The Secret Place,” a noticeboard devised by the school as an outlet for students to “express emotions that they don’t feel comfortable expressing elsewhere.” That’s PC-speak to explain that the noticeboard is ideally to curb internet bullying.
Moran approaches the lead detective for the case: Antoinette Conway, an attractive, icy, woman who has a poisonous reputation in the Dublin Murder Squad.
A woman working Murder shouldn’t rate scandal, shouldn’t even rate a mention. But a lot of the old boys are old school; a lot of the young ones too. Equality is paper-deep, peel it away with a fingernail. The grapevine says that Conway got the gig by shagging someone, says she got it by ticking the token boxes–something extra in there, something that’s not pasty potato Irish: sallow skin, strong sweeps to her nose and her cheekbones, blue-black shine on her hair. Shame she’s not in a wheelchair, the grapevine says, or she’d be commissioner by now.
While she’s made good career moves so far, the palpable antagonism against Conway in the squad room from her male colleagues has left her isolated and “flying solo” without a partner after her previous sidekick retired. Aware that his career is stalled, Moran sees Holly’s tip as a way of getting out of Cold Cases and into the Murder Squad where he’s currently on the “shit list for the forseeable.” Conway’s life in the Murder Squad is hell. She’s not treated like one of the guys, and she won’t tolerate the sexual innuendos, so in the eyes of her rejected male colleagues this makes her perceived sexual orientation/preferences a source of jokes–to them, she’s either a lesbian or a dominatrix:
Conway was in an interview. I sat on an empty desk in the Murder squad room, had the crack with the lads. Not a lot of crack, now; Murder is busy. Walk in there, feel your heart rate notch up. Phones ringing, computers clicking, people coming in and out; not hurried, but fast. But a few of them took time out to give me a poke or two. You want Conway? Thought she was getting some, all right, she hasn’t busted anyone’s balls all week; never thought she was getting it off a guy, though. Thanks for taking one for the team, man. Got your shots? Got your gimp suit?
Moran’s origins are working class, but whereas Moran can accept the knowledge that privilege and money will always open doors, Conway, from Dublin’s inner city “tower blocks IRA-wannabe graffiti and puddles of piss,” has zero patience for social status and niceties. Conway hit a wall in the investigation a year ago, and she got nowhere with the “shiny pedigree bitches” at St Kilda’s, girls from the wealthy homes who sniff her working class origins. The only lead Conway ever caught was that the victim was rumoured to be dating a St Kilda’s student named Selena.
The book goes back and forth from the present investigation to the past events which led up to the murder. The present, set within St Kilda’s, has a tightly, compulsively readable claustrophobic feel as Moran and Conway begin interviewing girls who knew Christopher. They try to penetrate the social world of these teenage girls, tentatively probing the membrane of friendship, loyalty and rivalry, and discover two sets of suspects: one group nicknamed the Daleks: 4 students dominated by a girl named Joanne, and another clique which includes Holly and Selena. Moran interviews each girl with intriguing results, and he’s very good at reading people, crafting an individual approach for each interview:
You want in a witness, you figure out what she wants. Then you give her that, big handfuls. I’m good at that.
Just as Broken Harbor recreated the desperate human face behind the housing crisis, The Secret Place showcases the artificial world of a girls’ school where the teenage girls compete, often viciously, for the attention from the boys at the boarding school next door. The nature of school life is ephemeral, and while some things that happen at school seem so important at the time, in the bigger scheme of an entire lifetime, these incidents will fade and disappear. But St Kilda’s, for some girls, is a crucible and because many of them have problem home lives, they’ve developed bonds that are unhealthy.
You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled right enough to scold you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.
Tana French brilliantly explores the world of teenage girls–girls who are at a delicate, crucial time of life when their flexible morality is developing in the shift towards adulthood. Broken Harbor concerned the death of an entire family in a house which held the echoes of the crime, and the same is true of The Secret Place. St Kilda’s is a vast school set on beautiful grounds, but there’s a strong sense of disquiet, the rumor of a ghost, and an atmosphere that fed murder–a very particular murder set firmly in its context and its unique set of circumstances. The case throws Moran and Conway back into their pasts. The girls at St Kilda’s remind Conway of everything she had to overcome, and Moran finds himself remembering his own teen years while stepping very carefully to avoid the hazards of some of the more dangerous St Kilda’s students. A murder set among teens would normally not pique my interest and would more likely result in a yawnfest. The Secret Place is so much more than a crime novel, and yet it’s my favourite sort of scenario that explores a crime created by a unique set of circumstances, time and place. Highly, compulsively readable, the novel is structured to keep us guessing until the end while throwing in issues of class conflict, class acceptance, teen angst, sexual politics and above all, the extent, and the limits, of loyalty.
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