Not since the 1980s-'90s heyday of Ruth Rendell have I been as eager, time after time, for the arrival of a new book by a female crime writer as I am for each one by Tana French. Whether it's sexism or simply a matter of the type of stories they write, I tend to gravitate to hard-edged male writers like Ian Rankin or Michael Connelly. But French is the real deal, with a tag team of cops on her fictional Dublin Murder Squad stepping forward one at a time to take the lead in cases - and books - that are always different. She really switches it up from book to book,and does so again in the new one, her fifth, The Secret Place.
(Obligatory spoiler alert. Don't read ahead if you don't want to know stuff.)
There's no need for me to beat the drum for this Irish crime writer. She won the Edgar Award for her first, In The Woods, in 2007. That novel was a pulse-pounder about Detective Rob Ryan, who used his middle name to hid a secret; as a child, he was one of three boys who disappeared in a headline-making case, and the only one who came back. When a girl was killed in the same patch of forest where the boys vanished, solving the case became an agonizing struggle for Ryan. The girl's killer was caught by the end of the movel, but French left the detective's childhood mystery unresolved - with an ambiguous hint that the solution was supernatural.
Ryan's near breakdown shattered his relationship with his female partner, Cassie Maddox. In French's next book, The Likeness, Maddox stepped forward into the shoes of a dead girl who looked just like her, keeping her "alive" to try and find out which of a creepy group of post-collegiate housemates killed her. Many detected a resemblance to Donna Tartt's The Secret History here, and I saw maybe a little Daphne DuMaurier too. Lotsa atmosphere around that big ol' country house, but maybe the thread of suspense got pulled a little thin.
Maddox's undercover supervisor in The Likeness was the tough, funny, duplicitous Det. Frank Mackie, who became the protagonist (and a suspect) in French's next, Faithful Place. Her most straightforward cop novel, it explored the brutal emotional realities of Mackie's youth in a literal dead-end neighborhood in a poor part of Dublin. The discovery of a long-missing suitcase suggested that Mackie's high-school girlfriend had not run away to England after all, but been murdered. Mackie was and is a fascinating character, like a nastier, less trustworthy version of Rankin's grumpy Edinburgh hero, John Rebus. The only problem for me was that I guessed the real murderer on about page 50, strictly by plot math. But if The Likeness raised some questions about French, Faithful Place put them to rest. A lot of people say it remains her best.
The investigating officer on that case, Scorcher Kennedy, became the lead character Broken Harbor, set in one of many unfinished housing developments left around Dublin by the collapse of the Irish economic boom. French brilliantly evoked the creepy atmosphere in this sad ghost suburb on the coastal plain, and her cops faced an absolutely insane crime scene. Was a family slaughtered by something from outside their walls, or a madness within?
Now comes The Secret Place, which finds a minor cop character from Faithful Place, Detective Stephen Moran, receiving a visit from Frank Mackie's now-teenaged daughter. She has found the photo of a murdered boy on a bulletin board at her exclusive little boarding school, with letters cut out to spell I know who killed him. The murder happened a year ago, on the school grounds. Moran brings the card to the primary investigator on the case, Antoinette Conway, and she lets him tag along for the day. If they get a solve, maybe he'll finally make the murder squad, unless working with the unpopular Conway ruins his reputation with the old boy network.
And here's what French does different here - the entire investigation takes place in a single marathon day of interrogations and sleuthing at the school. Closely observed chapters about the detectives at work there, their subtle strategizing as they questions certain girls over and over, alternate with flashbacks to times before the murder, seen from the girls' point of view. And each of those chapters begins with a date-specific warning of the approaching crime: Chris Harper has three months, eleven days and seventeen hours to live...
It's a fascinating and risky two-track strategy to create suspense, and it must have been brutal to keep track of the two timelines. There are, mainly, eight suspects in the murder - Holly Mackey and her three close friends, plus a quartet of mean girls who bully them. These 15- and 16-year-olds are driven, intelligent, clever, sneaky and duplicitious, but also scared, naive, too often dreamy. They're conscious of the power of their sexuality but not always in control of it, especially when Chris and his friends from the boys' school down the road are around. It's a volatile mix and creates difficulty and hazard for the two detectives, all the more so when Mackey shows up to watch over his daughter's interrogation.
French is after something very specific and ethereal through these girls, a picture that time in adolescence when your life is like a dramatic novel you're writing and you'll do anything for your friends - more so when you realize this time might soon come to an end. She chases it in long, sometimes mystical and certainly beautiful scenes, especially as the girls roam the school's grounds illicitly at night. It's a little bit of that DuMaurier romanticism again, updated for 2000s adolescents. But there is also, daringly, I think, a touch of magical realism here, as the girls find a power in themselves to shatter a light bulb or turn a key. It may not be intended as realism, but as their interpretation of events in a time of hysteria. Fans of the gritty Faithful Place may find it a bit much, which is why I give French total credit for having the courage to change it up from book to book and follow her muse.
The downside to The Secret Place is that the actual investigation hinges on so many tiny details it's almost Agatha Christie-esque, with three different lookalike cell phones, girls sneakily sending texts by other girls' phones, and so on, all in a complex timetable. But this is all just a big MacGuffin to what she's really writing about, the love and madness of teen friendship and the sacrifice of growing up. Plenty of gorgeous writing here, and I can hardly wait to see what French does next.