I’ve noticed this book creep into the recommended reads of the local Waterstone’s and into the supermarkets. Well… I was reading it first!
So, what do we have here?
It is a murder set in Dublin, Ireland revolving around the Murder Squad. It’s the fifth in French’s series which, as I understand from other reviews, not having read any of the others myself, have returning and revolving characters so that a minor character in one book becomes the protagonist of another; the main character of one gets a cameo in another. I like that idea: it seems slightly less egomaniacal and more realistic as friendships, partnerships and rivalries grow and wither. But, anyway, I’ve not read them so…. Back to The Secret Place…
The novel opens with a teenage Holly Mackey – apparently a witness in a previous novel – seeking out Detective Steven Moran in the Cold Cases Unit. In her hands, she’s clutching a postcard which she found at her boarding school claiming that someone knows who killed a boy murdered there the previous year. A quick trip to the Murder Squad and a bit of wheedling and the ambitious Steven is en route to the school to re-interview the girls, assisting Detective Antoinette Conway whose case it is, and getting his foot into the Murder Squad’s door.
The rest of the narrative follows the events of that single day which gives the prose – which at times is genuinely lyrical, especially when describing light – a tautness which is sometimes missing from crime dramas. There is no waiting for forensics or autopsies or fingerprints; nor is there any traipsing around Dublin searching for witnesses. Everything is contained by the one day and the walls of the school grounds. And, within those grounds, French explores issues of class (the working class detectives bristling in the exclusive St. Kilda’s), gender, generational tensions.
Alongside the investigation narrative, and alternating chapters with it, is the back story: the year that led up to the death of Chris Harper.
It is these flashback chapters which, I suspect, will divide readers. They divided me from … well … myself. On the one hand I adored the depiction of the two groups of girls around which the novel revolves. The preciousness and beauty and magic of those intense childhood friendships – magnified by the intimate claustrophobia (or claustrophobic intimacy) or the boarding rooms – is genuinely beautiful. As beautiful, in fact, as its disintegration is painful. Take a look at the description as one girl calls another and she
turned towards her voice, hand reaching, and her head bent back into that dark shape. Their arms folded around each other’s shoulders like wings, drawing tighter, like they were trying to meld themselves into one thing that could never be prized apart. I couldn’t tell which one of them sobbed….
A night bird ghosted across the top of the glade, calling high, trailing a dark spiderweb of shadow over our heads. Somewhere, a bell grated for lights-out; none of the girls moved. We left them there as long as we could.
I also love the parallel between the teenage friendships in the past and the blossoming of the friendship between Moran and Conway in the present as prickly defensiveness melts into tolerance, respect and a genuine bond.
What irked me about the girls’ chapters was the use of youth slang. I work with teenagers day in, day out and I’ve never heard anyone at any point use “OMG” the breathy “Ohmygod” as a single word, “chillax” and especially not “totes amazeballs”. It jarred with what was elsewhere a pitch-perfect mixture of credible voice and lyrical beauty.
There is one other aspect to the novel which was … unexpected. There was a surprising touch of the supernatural running through it. Chris Harper’s ghost was sighted more often than his corporeal presence was during his life! These occurrences were readily explained as the mass hysteria of the cloistered teenage girls… but Holly Mackey and her clique (Julie, Selena and Becca) seemed to discover, through their sisterhood, confidence, strength, peace. And magic. Yes, magic. It’s not a huge part of the plot – we’re at St. Kilda’s, not Hogwarts – and a very quiet form of it, symbolic of the strength and bond they share. I liked that slightly unsettling addition: what the girls discover is love, beauty, peace and poetry and those things are magical.
I can anticipate, though, that many readers picking this up as a police procedural would balk at it.
Personally, I’m now pretty keen to pick up the earlier novels if this is anything to go by: genuinely engaging, literary crime fiction.