Magical style and tedious plotting in Tana French’s latest

magical style

Every writer can have a bad day (or a bad year), and it would appear that Tana French was having one when she wrote The Secret Place. Oh, I read the whole thing, anyway. It’s hard to resist writing like this:

“Alison’s mum has had a lot of plastic surgery and she wears fake eyelashes the size of hairbrushes. She looks sort of like a person, but not really, like someone explained to aliens what a person is and they did their best to make one of their own.”

Despite the magic in French’s magical style — the book is riddled with brilliant passages like this one — I found The Secret Place tedious going. The book is structured around a one-day murder investigation at an exclusive Catholic girls’ school in suburban Dublin. Scenes set in the present are viewed through the eyes of a young policeman named Stephen Moran who has joined murder investigator Antoinette Conway to interrogate the fourth-year (10th grade) girls who represent the chief suspects in the year-old murder of Christopher Harper, a popular student at a posh nearby boys’ school.


The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5) by Tana French @@@ (3 out of 5)


Hour by hour, these contemporary scenes proceed through the grilling of the eight young women over the course of the day and evening. They alternate with flashbacks to the experiences of the suspects over the past year and a half. Moran and Conway’s interrogation of the girls is skillfully and sensitively depicted, but it’s difficult not to think of the classic drawing-room scenes in bygone English whodunits, with the suspects accused one after another to reveal their roles in the crime. I half expected to come across Col. Mustard with the knife in the parlor.

With that said, French’s treatment of the characters in her novel is difficult to fault. I’ve never been a 16-year-old girl, but I fully believe the three-dimensional portraits of Holly, Julia, Rebecca, and Selena as well as those of the two cops in the lead on the case. The setting, too, appears flawless. Coming on the heels of her previous novels — In The Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, and Broken Harbor, all of which I loved — The Secret Place was disappointing. I’m looking forward to French’s future work, when I hope she’ll be out of her funk.

Oh, and one more thing: I found the Irish slang to be impenetrable at times. In reproducing conversations, French makes abundant use of words and phrases such as “in the jacks,” “fair play to you,” and “bollix” that occasionally are clear in context but sometimes stumped me entirely. I have to admit, though, that it’s entertaining to see how one of the English language’s more colorful dialects is heading in the direction of mutual unintelligibility and thus becoming a language in its own right.

For additional reading

For reviews of the other novels in this series, see my post Reviewing the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French.

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