“Stephen King knows who killed him: “It’s terrific – terrifying, amazing and the prose is incandescent”.

“Kate Mosse knows who killed him: “Gripping and ingenious”

Sophie Hannah knows who killed him: “The thing Tana French does better than almost any living crime writer is create suspense”

The Secret Place by Tana French
The Secret Place

Detective Stephen Moran- young, ambitious, clever and likeable – has been working cold cases long enough. He wants murder squad. In walks ‘his’ Holly Mackey, the teenager daughter of an old-school copper, with a clue to a year-old unsolved murder which took place in the grounds of her private girls school, St Kilda’s, and who was a witness in a murder case Moran worked some years previously. A clue which could, just, be his ticket to promotion. Teamed up with Conway, the spikey, hard as nails, lead detective on the case, Dublin’s finest reel into St Kilda’s and are thrown into the nightmarish manipulations of girl gangs and the seemingly alien but oh so credible machinations of troubled, isolated teenagers.

Two stories run in parallel throughout the novel as French slowly and skilfully weaves the tragic, wasteful backstory to the murder of Christopher Harper into Conway and Moran’s frantic investigation. Christopher was superficially charming, the boy who had it all and a manipulating heartthrob for most of St Kilda’s girls: “He doesn’t just get his tit pics: he gets an apology of her for not sending them faster”. The investigation exposes a devilish network of teenager conspiracy, subterfuge and power games within the walls of the prudishly conservative St Kilda’s, bombarding the detectives with clues and red herrings in equal measure. They soon learn that Holly’s clue – a photograph of Chris, his t-shirt obscured by letters cut out of a book spelling out the confessional “I know who killed him” had been pinned up in the mysterious and unsettling Secret Place by one of the girls the day before. That is the only thing they discover easily.

The Secret Place by Tana French
The Secret Place

But this is a cut above the average, fast-paced crime thriller. French creates a complete world which fascinates and repels in equal measure yet, for someone like me who also attended an all-girls private school, it is a world which rings true: the gaggles of ridiculously bitchy and tribal girls, the friendships formed that will last for ever, the isolation-driven unawareness of anything other than themselves, the heart-wrenching levels of unnecessary self-sacrifice all attest to French’s acute observation. We are reminded just how fragile sanity is, how easy it is to misunderstand the behaviours of others and how ill-equipped girls, albeit on the verge of womanhood, are to understand any of it.

Watching the relationship between Moran and Conway spark into gear, and occasionally misfire, is one of the pleasures of this novel, providing a counterpoint to the troubling teenage dynamics. They juggle their matching ambitiousness with a shared and genuine desire to get the ‘right result’ and get it fast, all the time testing each other, not knowing when to trust and when to doubt, searching for ways to exploit each other’s’ skills, searching for the perfect partner yet never sure of what that is.

I was less taken with gothic blur towards the supernatural and was felt wondering if this was strictly necessary – but this is a very small reservation regarding a crime mystery which I enjoyed immensely.
This is the best police procedural that I’ve read for many a year. It’s genuinely unputdownable. It’s like reading Josephine Tey’s prose and mystery mixed with Linwood Barclay’s plot and pace, and a bit of Wilkie Collins’ devil-making and characteristation thrown in. This is classic crime fiction not far from its sizzling, bewitching best. And now I know who killed him too.

I’m grateful to the Commuter Book Club (@railbookclub on Twitter) for sending me an Advance Reader Copy of this book. The views expressed in this review are however entirely my own.

Read and reviewed in August 2014

©Jessica Mulley