Murder Goes to Prep School: A Conversation About Tana French’s The Secret Place

September 24, 2014 | 9 books mentioned 28 8 min read
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Fellow Millions staff writer Janet Potter and I enjoy a lot of the same books, and we were both giddy to read The Secret Place, the fifth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Janet got her paws on it early this summer and I read it in a breathless rush last week so that we could discuss ASAP. What follows is our email correspondence about the novel and French’s work in general. 

covercoverJanet: I loved The Secret Place. I have been a fan of Tana French since I read In the Woods and The Likeness, but I felt that with Faithful Place and Broken Harbor she was kind of in a rut. Each of her books center on a Dublin homicide detective, and although they’re not strictly a series, each new book’s detective has been a character in a previous book. She established a sort of trademark formula in which the murder case that the detective was working had resonance in their own lives — usually by way of dragging up bad memories. In her first two books this gave the plot more depth than an average whodunit, but in the second two the personal connections to the case seemed overbearing.

The Secret Place seemed to me both like a return to form — in that it was innovative and gripping; and a departure from it — in that she finally dumped the “this case has eerie connections to my personal life but I’m going to keep working it no matter how ill-advised that is” trope. And for this book she bravely took on the world of teenage girls — the murder in question took place at a girls’ boarding school outside Dublin and a group of four friends — Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena — are the chief suspects.

covercoverFrench has said that she would shamelessly hang around bus stops and shopping centers to listen to teenagers talk to each other, and my strongest impression of the book is how she used realistic teenage vernacular to convey enormous complexity. I’m a fan of YA books, but the characters in them are frequently aspirational (unless all the super hot, sensitive, artistically-inclined boys in my high school were hiding somewhere). The girls in The Secret Place are very recognizably obnoxious teenagers, and yet their lives and relationships are intricate and compelling — to the extent that I thought they were all idiots, and at one point or another I thought all of them capable of murder.

I guess I’m not really ending with a question, other than do you agree? And did you like the book?

coverEdan: I wish I had liked The Secret Place as much as you did! After the first 100 pages, I would have agreed with you–at first, I was compelled by this story of teenage girl friendship and, as always, I found French’s trademark prose lively and surprising, phrases like, “little crunch of a grin” and  “the acoustics were all swirl and ricochet.” Although I hadn’t gotten bored of French’s mystery formula, as you had, I was pleased to see her attempt something different in her new book. As you say, it was refreshing that this murder case didn’t hold a too-strong psychological power over its detectives; Detective Stephen Moran’s professional motive (to get him off Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by working with the barbed Antoinette Conway) was enough to sustain my interest. I also enjoyed how the narrative switched back and forth between the present investigation, told from Stephen’s first person perspective, and the time leading up to the murder itself, told from the teenage girls’ perspectives. The structure reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which we’ve discussed before; such a sweep backward feels simultaneously magical (we can return to an innocent time!) and foreboding (we know the dead body is just around the bend!)  The Secret Place plays the present off the past to provide the reader with a much fuller understanding of this private school and its machinations.

I also enjoyed thinking about how being a teenage girl is a bit like being a detective, for both roles require a near-constant behavioral accommodation in order to get what you want: from a suspect or witness, or from a friend or a teacher. Dang, Tana, that’s good.

covercoverUnfortunately, for me, the book falters in its representation of the group of teenage girls that Holly Mackey and her tribe don’t like. The main mean girl, Joanne, and her hangers-on Orla and Gemma, just don’t feel three-dimensional.  They never quite emerge from the roles they play, and, unlike Detective Moran, I didn’t fully experience the power, tragedy, and thrill of their constructed selves. After about page 200, I grew bored of the drama between the girls; a lot of it felt repetitive. Likewise, the back-and-forth between Moran and Conway began to feel familiar. I wanted a more swift emotional arc. I wonder, if the book had been more taut, would it have worked for me? Generally, reading this just made me long for the terrific leanness of Dare Me and The Fever by Megan Abbott, two novels about teenage girls, secrets, and darkness.

Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Tana French didn’t give this book a female victim. I’m glad that The Secret Place doesn’t have a True Detective problem–you know, how its only women are dead or dancing naked. But I also wondered if that’s what made me less invested in the story (credit wendy at dresshead.com). Did I much care who killed Christopher Harper? And was that because he was just some prep school asshole? As horrible as this sounds, is a female victim more valuable and/or dramatic to me? What are your thoughts?

Janet: I hadn’t drawn that connection between the adapto-manipulative behavior of teenage girls and detectives. That’s really fascinating, and I think it’s why those long scenes that are just a detective and one of the girls sitting on opposite sides of an interrogation table are so compelling. French has always relished describing interrogations at length, and goes into a lot of detail as to what’s going on in both character’s heads — how they’re reading the other person, how they’re adapting their behavior to regain control in the conversation — and the results could be likened both to a boxing match or a chess game. The interrogation scene in The Secret Place that involved three detectives and one teenage girl — Stephen, Antoinette, Frank Mackey (the protagonist of Faithful Place), and his daughter Holly — was psychologically complex, unpredictable, and good fun to read; perhaps the ultimate Tana French scene and by far my favorite in this book.

coverI agree with you that Joanne’s gang was a little two-dimensional, but I opted to think it was intentional. The friendship between our four main girls deepened and strengthened considerably throughout the year, and in the process their interactions with Joanne and her friends seem to bother them less and less. I think the juxtaposition between the two groups shows the change in Holly’s group in starker relief. But is “deepened and strengthened” even the right expression? Frankly, the friendship between the four main girls became so important that it took over their lives, reminiscent of the friends in Tartt’s A Secret History, and seemingly manifested its own supernatural power. Can we talk about that? What did you make of the supernatural elements of this book?

Edan: You’re right, French does relish the interrogation scene, and as I said a few years ago, in my analysis of her first three novels, her books teach you how to be a detective. In The Secret Place, we even get detective mythology: “And, somewhere in a locked back corner detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda’s gloss, that walk through old oak doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my  banged-up fists along with my enemy’s blood.” That single passage is enough to reveal Detective Moran’s weak spot: his desire, and inability, to belong. I loved the first interrogations of all eight girls. I loved seeing how each girl acted around the detectives–what a way to characterize! (It also made me wonder what Moran would sniff out in me: a need to be loved, a need to be sexy, a need to disappear…)  By the time the book gets to Holly’s final interrogation, though, I wasn’t that interested in the mystery anymore, so it wasn’t as effective.

As for the friendship between Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena, I thought it complex and magical and tough in the way that these friendships sometimes are. Their relationship did get more intense, almost rigorous in its devotion…but then adulthood and sexual desire and natural human secrecy got in its way, which then caused all sorts of problems. The downfall of their group-friendship felt realistic and dramatic and upsetting. I guess I would have liked to see the same complexity brought to Joanne’s circle, too, for certainly they are real young women, and not the paper dolls they pretend to be.

The supernatural stuff delighted but didn’t totally land for me. I think French does it better in Broken Harbor where the secret of the baby monitors and the holes in the wall are revealed to have logical explanations…but something inexplicable and eerie remains unanswerable. French was edging toward the supernatural in that novel, and finally got there in The Secret Place. Unfortunately, the powers of the girls felt a bit unfocused for me, and I wanted them to play a more significant role overall. I mean–there’s their ability to move objects with their minds and stuff, and then there’s Chris’s ghost. I couldn’t connect them–did I miss something?  It felt muddled…but I love the idea and I want more of that from French in her next book.

Let’s talk about my favorite topic: gender roles. Moran was the feminine one, and Conway was the masculine one. He admired beauty in all its forms…and she grunted. What did you make of this role swap?  Maybe this comes back to my question about French choosing a male victim–who is found covered in flowers, I might add.

Janet: I ignored your earlier question about gender roles (to no avail, it seems), because while there are a lot of interesting gender dynamics, I don’t have a unified theory of what French was trying to do with it. Unless she wasn’t trying to do anything other than shift roles around and see what happens.

Originally I thought the the feminine/masculine, good cap/bad cop dynamic between Stephen and Antoinette was intended to distance them from Rob and Cassie, French’s detective team from In the Woods. In that earlier book, Cassie was the bubbly one whose rookie status on the otherwise all-male detective squad was legitimized by having a male partner. In this book, Stephen is the empathetic rookie and Antoinette is tough as nails, perhaps excessively so (but I guess we’ll get into that in French’s next book).

The murder plot also hinges around gender roles — specifically around the psychology and limitations of female friendship and what happens when a guy starts to unwittingly threaten them (erring on the side of ambiguity to avoid giving too much away here). I agree that Chris, even as the murder victim, feels secondary to the murder plot. Solving the mystery requires digging into the social and emotional dynamic between the girls, and I felt that French was more interested in that process than in the fact that it resulted in uncovering the murderer.

It’s also interesting, then, that Stephen is the one who cracks the case. Antoinette had been there a year earlier and failed. Do you think was intentional? Did the case require Stephen’s, uh, feminine touch? Or is he just the hero of the book?

Edan: I’m also not sure what French was up to with the role reversals. I agree that Chris is secondary to the murder plot–not only to the book’s own untangling of whodunit, but also to the girls themselves and their desires and sense of being threatened. He could have been anyone. And that is a bit shiver-inducing in its own right.

I feel the need to quote this line, which, to me, was the best of the whole book, “Who who whose smell in the air of her room, whose fingerprints all over her friends’ secret places.”  It suggests that The Secret Place is not only a bulletin board in the school hallway where girls can leave anonymous messages and pictures and the like, but also…a girl’s private parts.  I kind of wish the book had been called The Vagina.

This theory of why Antoinette couldn’t crack the case is intriguing–is it because Stephan could see the world as these teenagers could, connecting with all that they responded to and were repelled by? Perhaps Conway couldn’t adequately solve it because she was a woman in a male-dominated squad, which meant she had to listen to her partner even if she didn’t like his choices, even if she was supposed to be the lead detective on the case. Also, she was somewhat handicapped by her class-rage, unable to see these girls for anything but spoiled rich girls; Stephan, on the other hand, saw the beauty of their privilege, and longed for it himself. He was able to transform his longing into intimacy with these suspects.

Now I want everyone in the comment thread to list French’s novels from their most to least favorite. What do you think, Janet? We can do it too!

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. Learn more about her writing classes at writingworkshopsla.com.

28 comments:

  1. I haven’t had the privilege of reading Tana French but am putting this story at the top of my list! I am contemplating writing a YA mystery, but the police/suspect interrogation scenes have scared me off, so this sounds like the perfect read for me to learn and enjoy! Thank you for the in depth analysis!

  2. My ranking of French novels:

    1 – In the Woods
    2 – The Secret Place
    3 – The Likeness
    4 – Faithful Place
    5 – Broken Harbor

    Secret Place narrowly edges out The Likeness because the farther away from it I get, the more preposterous The Likeness’s premise is. Faithful Place and Broken Harbor are essentially tied for last, but I put Faithful Place on top because Frank Mackey grew up 3 blocks away from where I lived in Dublin during grad school.

    What we can glean is that I liked detective teams and I like group psychology.

  3. Here is my list:
    1. In the Woods
    2. The Likeness (I know it’s unbelievable but I don’t care!)
    3. Broken Harbor ( I feel like people don’t love this one as much as I do, but it was so eerie to me!)
    4. The Secret Place
    5. Faithful Place (this one was the least successful for me since I solved the case right away…)

  4. I assumed Antoinette couldn’t solve the case mainly because of access–pressure to shut the case down quickly, class snobbery (the girls wouldn’t talk to her), a sexist partner and department that probably don’t believe a little girl could kill a young man, etc. She kicks herself repeatedly for not figuring things out sooner, but when your hands are tied there probably isn’t a lot you can do (even though she does have the insight into girls’ minds that Stephen requires to succeed. . . it’s a little bit like Remington Steele Syndrome. . . which might bother someone who isn’t such a pragmatist).

    My favorite parts of the book were the interviews–particularly Stephen’s last conversation with Joanne et al., when you get to see that her gang is just four girls feeling for some sort of power they don’t truly have (or understand).

    I wish she’d done more with the supernatural bit, but to go too far with it would have been too literal or off topic. Maybe it was just enough; a minor poltergeist born from the power of their friendship.

    My favorite books, in order:

    1. In the Woods
    2. Broken Harbor (so creepy)
    3. The Likeness (good but so similar to The Secret History)
    4. The Secret Place
    5. Faithful Place

  5. 1. In The Woods
    2. The Broken Harbor
    3. Faithful Place
    4. the Secret Place
    5. Likeness

    I don’t know, I liked this one quite a bit, but the entire dynamics between the girls seemed like the retread of another work somewhere, didn’t it?

    Just wondering, does any one know who the protagonist of the next book is going to be? I wouldn’t mind a book (Say . after another 3 or 4), that had Holly as a rookie cop tell the story!

  6. Am I really all that out of order?! I think so.
    1. Faithful place
    2. The Likeness
    3. Broken harbor
    4. Secret place
    5. Into the Woods

  7. I really liked this book. I knew whodunit very early on, but that didn’t bother me. I still could hardly put the book down.
    I loved how the dynamics between the girs in the different groups was so realistic for teenagers and how this was essential for the solve (thats actually why I was able to solve it so early – because it totally made sense in their world).
    I did not like the supernatural bits. Like Edan, I preffered that there was a logical explanation to almost everything in the end as in Broken Harbor.
    Although I thought that there was a hint that it might just have been their Imagination. Does anyone agree? Rebecca and Selina seemed to border on psychosis anyway (would anyone like to discuss this with me?). So I thought maybe Julia and Holly just played a long or took over these smaller psychotic symptoms to keep the group together?

    Here is my order of books:

    1. Secret Place
    2. The Likeness (I havent read The Secret History but I think I should :-) )
    3. Faithful Place
    4. In the woods (I loved it during reading, but I really didn’t like that there was no solve – I kept going back over and over because I thought I missed something).
    5. Broken Harbor

  8. 1. Broken Harbor
    2. Faithful Place
    3. In the Woods
    4. Secret Place
    5. The Likeness

    I love Tana French, but for me the supernatural side of things was a little off-putting. I love how in Broken Harbor it was all explained, but not quite. Here I felt like we were meant to believe they were actually witches. Which felt a bit too YA for my tastes. There was the part where it dawns on Holly that some day she will be sure that it was all their imagination and I felt like that was the barest of hints that perhaps it was. But the ghost part only added to the silliness. I also agree that the Daleks started getting annoying once I realized their characters would develop no further. I also felt like Rebecca’s state of mind could have been developed further. As well as Holly’s character throughout. I felt like French spent so much time developing their unusual bond she dropped the ball on their individuality. Which may have been the point, but later it rang empty for me. I had the mystery figured out very early on and I was disappointed because I felt like it wasn’t hard to guess, because much like in The Likeness, it simply didn’t matter to French. The victim didn’t matter to French. All that mattered was this unusual bond and the magical powers it produced which was the goofiest element to the story for me.
    What I liked about it, was Detective Moran. He was immensely likable and it was fun to root for him. I also thought French did a masterful job of creating the most ridiculous and obnoxious teenage dialogue and yet giving it massive amounts of nuance and depth. Overall I always enjoy a new French novel, but on review I realize this wasn’t her best in my opinion.

  9. i struggled with The Secret Place. I felt that midway through, the girls’ dialogue bogged down so much that the plot failed to progress. Of course that’s often the problem with stories anchored in one place; the author has to dress and redress the setting, working to reveal something previously overlooked but somehow alluded to.

    I didn’t feel the detectives’ roles were a gender flip. I didn’t notice that the victim’s gender was also unique, but in retrospect I’m glad it wasn’t another helpless female.

    My list:
    1. In The Woods
    2. The Likeness
    3. The Secret Place
    4. Broken Harbour
    5. Faithful Place

    I’m looking forward to the next book – who will it be centered on? I’m hoping it’s a grown-up Holly.

  10. I’m out of synch but i didn’t really like Broken Harbour, for me it didn’t have as much warmth mixed in with the mystery as the others. I loved Faithful Place, thought Frank was a brilliant narrator:

    In the woods
    Faithful Place
    The Secret Place
    The Likeness
    Broken Harbour

  11. I totally did not get the ending…….what happened with selena and what did holly post at the secret place before she left. I’m really confused by what was going on with selena, am I missing something?????

  12. I found the secret place a teen ager harlequin romance been a long time since I found a book so boring! It went on and on and went no where.

  13. The Secret Place was kind of a disappoinment to me! I’m the opposite of you – I thought the teenspeak was WAY off (I’m a middle school teacher, so I hear probably too much of it daily) and distracting.

    My list:
    1. Broken Harbor
    2. Faithful Place
    3. The Likeness
    4. In the Woods
    5. The Secret Place

    Wow, I think I’m really different than everyone else!

  14. I hope the next book focuses on Antoinette!

    I’m not going to rank the books, but I think In The Woods was my favorite, in spite of that major thread left hanging. The book felt like a punch to the gut, which I mean in the best way possible. :))

  15. In the Woods
    The Likeness
    broken Harbour
    The Secret Place
    Faithful Place

    I felt that the supernatural powers were symbolic of the power of the girls friendship. Yes, that seemed like a hint when Holly thinks to herself toward the end that they will think they imagined it.
    This reminds me of the murder of the mom in the true story of Anne Perry and her friend. The characters had that same obsessed living-in-their-own-world type of friendship, and the threat to what they had could not be tolerated.

  16. Broken Harbour
    Faithful Place
    The Likeness
    The Secret Place
    In the Woods

    I love all of Tana French’s books – love her psychological focus. In my opinion her books were getting stronger and stronger each time so I was really looking forward to this one. Secret Place seemed like a bit of a step back. For most of the book I didn’t really get into it until until the end with the last set of interviews where everything was being resolved which was very gripping. (Although I still don’t quite get why Selena suddenly dumped Chris… because they kissed once???) The supernatural poltergeist aspect didn’t help, that I found just silly. (In comparison to Broken Harbour where it worked better & was spooky.) Also the main character Steven Moran wasn’t very strong, I kept wishing she had focused more on Conway.

  17. This was my first and last reading if this is representative of her novels. For me it was a long haul to move through the pages. It was less of who dun-it and more of young catholic girls and their relationships……

  18. This is a truly dreadful book. Really, really, awful. Long (too long) and simply boring. If ever there was a book not to be tossed aside lightly, but flung with great force, this is it. My first book by Tana French and very likely the last.

    I bought it in an airport in a hurry. Memo to myself: no more impulse purchases, do not read the appallingly dishonest quotes on the cover. This was sooo bad it’s motivated me, finally, to organize my TO READ list and to have a backlog on my kindle.

    It appears Ms French may be more popular with women, and I notice that most of the comments here are from women.

  19. Read this book and enjoyed it up until the ending. Would someone please explain it to me?
    Thanks

  20. The Likeness
    Broken Harbor
    The Secret Place
    Faithful Place
    In the Woods

    I did not like “In the Woods” at all. Rob’s self-destruction is brutal to watch, and there is nothing to redeem him. It wasn’t tragic as much as it was total failure. “The Likeness” was rich and deeply steeped in description and character development. There was nothing wrong with its implausibility… The premise was laid out in the early chapters of the book and posed no problem for reading and enjoying the rest of it. “The Secret Place” had its moments, but something was off. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. “Broken Harbor” was haunting. A great read. That’s when a detective’s downfall is tragic, with Richie as opposed to Rob. As for “Faithful Place”, it’s a bit disappointing from Frank’s perspective. I expected more from him.

  21. The secret place was the first book i read of Tana french. I do love the whole setting of the story and i was touched by the friendship between the four girls but sadly, their love to each others had turned out something tragic. one downside of the book was the superpower stuff, which i could barely understand what it means and it was not logical at all ! Besides, it did no contribute to the whole story and it could be deleted. I think Rebecca’s mind can be described in details as i didn’t fully understood what led her to kill. Furthermore, Becca had given Selena the Chris’s phone, there should be something on Selena’s mind(her mest mate killed her lover). I loved Conway and Holly the most because they seem tough and nothing could hurt them at lot but these two girls actually needed more love and care than anyone else. Can some discuss with me although it’s already 2016 and i was a bit late !

  22. Why was Rebecca back at school like nothing happened? Did she get away with murder? I thought the secret place was confusing even to the end. I hated the supernatural bits. They made no sense and added nothing to the story. I did like the girls’ love and loyalty to each other, however. Can someone please explain the ending to me!

  23. Angie, I think you are confused. That next to last chapter where all the girls return after a summer away is actually the September previous to the start of the book, not the one after. it took me a moment too.

  24. Angie, Your comments regarding the supernatural episodes are spot on, I couldn’t agree more. The whole book was confusing to say the least and, for me, became quite unreadable towards the end. In the Woods definitely my favourite Tana French book!

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