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!
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl may have been the breakout hit of the summer, but those intrigued enough by Flynn’s twisty thriller to read her other work will find that as good as Gone Girl is, her two earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are even better. Flynn, who wrote about TV and movies for Entertainment Weekly before her fiction career took off, writes character-based literary novels disguised as page-turning action thrillers. The solutions to the mystery at the end of her books, though usually surprising, are nowhere as interesting as the human dilemmas of her central characters.
Flynn is especially good at creating damaged, dangerous women whose deeply imagined inner lives break your heart even as the characters create havoc in the lives of the people around them. For me, the best of Flynn’s books is her first, Sharp Objects, about a newspaper reporter recently released from a brief stay in a psych ward who is sent to cover a series of child-killings in her hometown. The crime plot clicks expertly along, but the true mystery is the book’s narrator, Camille Preaker, whose self-hatred is literally written on her body, the words — NASTY on her kneecap, WHORE on her ankle — carved into her skin with a razor blade. I wondered, idly, who could have committed the murders Camille is sent to report upon, but what kept me turning the pages was the thornier question of how this smart, fragile woman could find the toughness to keep herself from making the final cut.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Staff writers Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki often read (and enjoy) the same books, and like almost everyone else in the world, they found Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to be a fun, engrossing, and thought-provoking novel, worthy of the attention it’s getting. They decided to read Flynn’s two previous novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, and discuss all three books via email. Below is their conversation about the author and her books. Subjects include: murder, milk, Pinterest boards, and camp (the aesthetic, not sleep-away).
Janet Potter: Something that strikes me in these books — particularly Dark Places and Gone Girl — is how singling out and digging into a person’s life, whether or not they are guilty of murder, tends to raise suspicions about that person. A theme running through Gone Girl is that everyone is keeping secrets, but are they harmless secrets, dangerous secrets, or the secret — the secret that you’re the culprit? Everyone that’s investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception.
It started to make me wonder. If tomorrow somebody came to look through my apartment, what kind of things would snag as strange? Why do I have three heavy-duty padlocks sitting on my bookshelf, a set of keys to an apartment I moved out of seven months ago, and four different types of milk in the fridge? Each of these things has a rational, if unusual, explanation, but I haven’t left those explanations on post-it notes in case I disappear.
Do you think this is just a feature of Flynn’s books, or do you think it’s an accurate depiction of how many secrets we’re all keeping at any given time?
Ms. Flynn is masterful at writing plots — her books move at a delicious pace. For me, one essential element to any strong plot is the repeated but changing resonance of things like setting, possession, character choice, and so on. What seems like a harmless action at one point in the novel is rendered differently later on in the book. Her books continually zing! because something is seen anew, or a character understands an event in a different light. I think that’s what Flynn is doing with these secrets that her characters harbor: they have an emotional reason for being in the book, but they also scratch a plot itch.
It’s interesting that Flynn’s novels make you paranoid about how, say, a homicide detective or the media might view your life, should there be some crime committed that you’re connected to. When I was reading her books, I kept worrying about the men I know — mainly my husband — for Flynn’s books seem mostly interested in the way the world perceives men’s appetite for violence. Perhaps you’re right, and that “everyone that’s investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception,” but the people who are investigated in her novels are always male. Which leaves you and me off the hook! Let’s go murder some people!
Flynn’s work is most engaging to me for what it says about gender: what men are accused of, what cruelties women are capable of, and so on. I’m interested in the conversations her novels have about female sexuality, and the roles women play and play-at, for others.
JP: In the past few weeks I’ve needed specific types of milk for specific recipes — paneer (whole), fried chicken (buttermilk), creme fraiche (cream), and basic coffee-drinking (skim). I’m glad you think that even my dairy melangerie wouldn’t mark me as a person of interest, because I’m of the gentler sex.
It’s true, as you say, that the suspicion of murder usually falls on the closest healthy male, but the women in Flynn’s books certainly don’t come across well either. There is a scene in each of the three books in which the main female character is forced to spend time with a group of women. The horror! The gaggles of ladies are all about wine, casseroles, pointed comments, and over-sharing. Of course, an aspect of these Missouri-based scenes is that the lead females are from somewhere else, like New York or Chicago, and are hanging out with women they find less sophisticated than themselves. But still, Flynn repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.
Do you think Gillian Flynn would want to hang out with us? Or would we just get wined up and insult her Pinterest boards? I’m not saying that she writes flat female characters. She also writes incredibly wise, no-nonsense women (the detective in Gone Girl, the mother and aunt in Dark Places). And her lead women — Camille, Libby, and Amy — are damaged, complicated, and resilient in turns.
In Gone Girl, Amy spends a long time describing herself as a “cool girl” — the perfect girlfriend, not whiny, dependent, jealous, or easily offended, beautiful without seeming to primp. A cool girl seems to be invulnerably confident. What Flynn seems to dislike so much about groups of women is that when they get together they tend to fetishize their own vulnerability.
The vulnerability of women has many forms in her work. Some women hide it, some preen it, some hide behind it as a guise for their cruelty, some reject it, and some use its appearance as a weapon. Weaponized vulnerability! I think this comes back to your point, that so much of what defines Flynn’s women is how they react to the fact of being a woman. And that they should watch out for killers.
EL: That you drink coffee with skim milk. Ugh! That’s enough to book you!
Amy’s passage about being a cool girl felt like a diatribe versus a brag. That is, she recognizes that the cool girl thing is a role, a construct. She can play that role with elan, she can play it so well that it lets her manipulate others. But implicit in that passage, if I remember correctly, is this sense that playing that role is also oppressive. She is empowered and suffocated by the game simultaneously. And that totally rang true to me as a woman.
What I love most about Gone Girl was the way Flynn made me think about how character and identity are constructed. She made me like and then dislike a character, dislike and then like another one, and then dislike the whole lot of them, the idea of identity dissolving and reappearing at every moment. Who are these people? Who am I? It’s a gloriously postmodern conception of identity, I think — nothing is inalienable, we are all constructs, and so on. That Flynn gave that to me in a disgustingly readable novel is just icing on the cake, er, buttermilk in the chicken.
I’m also interested in the evolution of tone in her novels. Sharp Objects seems the most raw and intimate to me, while simultaneously using some truly Gothic touches that are also absurd they’re so theatrical. That Gothic stuff — the dead sister, say, or the living sister, dressed up as a doll and playing with a doll house that’s an exact replica of the house she lives in — moves to something else in Dark Places, with the Kill Club, and the crazy wackness that is Deondra (Holy shit! The part where her pit bulls poop inside and she doesn’t clean it up?!), and then onto something else in Gone Girl, which has a kind of War of the Roses, campy vibe to it by the end. It’s comic, but that doesn’t seem like the right word.
Can we also talk about class in her novels?
JP: This slippery idea of identity that you brought up was what impressed me the most about Flynn as a writer. In reading Gone Girl I felt like I knew Nick and Amy, in the sense that they were recognizable, real, fully-formed characters, and yet I didn’t know them at all, in the sense that they were their own constructs, adept at deceiving me as well as each other. I don’t know how she did that, but the skill with which she did gives the book that chilling, disorienting feeling you mentioned. Any time I thought I had learned something true about one of them, I would later learn that I had been fooled. Flynn’s books are so — here it comes! — creepy because they make you distrust your everyday life. We’re all just lying machines.
I had to think about your question on tone. It’s something I usually take in subconsciously until somebody points it out. There are two faces to her writing — the realism of her settings and characters, and what you call the Gothic touches, but I call the wackos. The evolution that I see is these two elements moving towards each other. That is, in Sharp Objects I felt we were in a normal small town but there were WACKOS EVERYWHERE!, but by Gone Girl the wackos were hiding in plain sight. It became harder with each successive book to say, “I don’t know any people like that,” because the point was that you wouldn’t know if you did.
I noticed the class issue even less. Tell me what you think.
EL: I’m beginning to think that tone is the last frontier in fiction. Sure, we still see experimentation with language and the cross-pollination of genres and the like, but lately the narrative art that I’m both invested in and puzzled by plays with tone: this sense that I can’t quite pin it down — is it meant to be funny, or somber? Is it meant to be irreverent or transcendent? Am I supposed to weep or curse? Probably all of the above — and yet, the work still feels driven, intentional. I feel this playfulness with tone when I watch Louis C.K.’s eponymous show on FX, and I feel it with Flynn’s novels, too: it’s a refusal to be categorized emotionally, and it’s product of a nuanced point of view. With Flynn’s work, I feel like she’s playing with this idea that murder is sensationalized and gossiped about and profited from. It’s also awful and terrorizing, and that will never ever change no matter how many episodes of Cold Case or Law & Order that you watch in a day. She acknowledges both of these elements in her books.
There’s a great review of Gone Girl in Full-Stop by Catie Disabato, which talks about how Flynn’s book is really two books in one, and I totally agree. Disabato points out that all of the reviews discuss the first half, which is the mystery. None of the reviews mention the second half — which isn’t a mystery at all — because they don’t want give anything away. I wonder if Flynn’s next book will even have a mystery in it, period. People would call it “a departure” but I think her novels are working in this direction, away from a straight-up whodunit crime book. Each novel is less straightforward structurally and tonally than the next.
And, lastly, there’s a ton of stuff about class in her novels. In Sharp Objects, the narrator’s family is the richest in town, which gives them power and enables certain crimes to happen. In Dark Places, the narrator’s family is the poorest in town, and her brother is lured by the wealth (not to mention the hot pussy) of the richest girl in town; also, what the narrator does in the present action of the story is initially motivated by a need for money — she has to pay the rent, so she must face her past whether she wants to or not. In Gone Girl, much of their Missouri town has been devastated by the recent recession; I will never forget that chilling scene in the abandoned mall, taken over by squatters, junkies, and those simply forgotten by the rest of the country. One of the reasons the whole country bands together in support of Amy, I think, is because she is “wholesome” and “middle-class” — the kind of girl everyone supposedly loves/is supposed to love. Had she been poor (and/or not white), the machine would not have consumed her story as it did. Overall, Flynn seems interested in the ways that poverty and wealth can alter (i.e., wreck) the human psyche.
I hope there’s a grad student out there writing a PhD dissertation called Rich Girl, Poor Girl: Gillian Flynn and The Economics of Murder. Or something.