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.
Janet: 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.
French 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?
Edan: 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
I 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!