LAST GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2014
The Secret Place, by Tana French
I am a committed fan of Tana French. The Crime and suspense genre has many good authors, but few great ones: Ms French deservedly belongs in the latter category and it is satisfying to know that each time we read one of her books we are enjoying a story of the highest quality.
Yet again, she doesn’t disappoint: ‘The Secret Place’ is a masterly analysis and dissection of friendships and those connections that pass for the word; the lengths that people will go to preserve the relationships that are important to them; and the tipping point between friendship and obsession.
The unthinkable has happened at one of Dublin’s most exclusive private girls’ schools: The body of a young man, a pupil at a nearby equally expensive boys’ school has been discovered with severe head injuries in the grounds of St. Kilda’s. The shock amongst the elite is absolute: this sort of crime happens in lesser, meaner suburbs; parents pay good money to St Kilda’s to protect their darlings from such horror – surely the murder was random, committed by some low-class weasel who climbed over the wall! The fact that the boy should have been in his own school, tucked up in bed instead of being AWOL in a place where he had no business to be – in short, HE had climbed over the wall to meet his fate – well, that seems irrelevant. The police will sort it all out.
But they don’t. There were precious few clues to start with, and despite extensive interviews with every pupil of both schools little has occurred to advance the case or produce a list of suspects. After a year the case has gone cold, and everyone is supposed to be moving on with their lives – until Holly Mackey, a St Kilda’s pupil and acquaintance of the dead boy visits Detective Stephen Moran with a notice she found at ‘The Secret Place’, a school noticeboard that pupils can use to leave anonymous messages, supposedly to let off steam by disclosing secrets they would rather not keep.
The message that Holly shows Moran is simple: it has a photo of Chris Harper, the murdered boy, with words beneath cut from a book or magazine: ‘I know who killed him’.
Holly and Stephen have met before. When she was nine, she had to testify in a murder case (see ‘Faithful Place’ review below) and Stephen prepared and supported her to do so; trust was forged between them during that terrible time and she feels now that he will know what to do about this mystery message. Stephen is an ambitious man. He is currently working on Cold Cases but has been lusting to join the Murder Squad for years – he even enjoys a relationship of sorts with Holly’s father Frank, a high-ranking detective and local legend; Frank has said good things about Stephen whenever the occasion warranted. Could this anonymous message be the opportunity he has been waiting for?
Perhaps. Unfortunately, he has to provide the Lead Detective on the case, Antoinette Conway with his new information, and it is up to her whether he rises or falls. She makes it patently and quickly clear that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly: she is a lone wolf. Her colleagues in Murder don’t want to work with her; they think she’s an uppity bitch, and the fact that she hasn’t solved the case is enormously satisfying to them. Stephen soon realises that there will be many bridges to cross before he reaches his goal.
Meantime, the investigation is resumed and fresh eyes see things that were not obvious a year before. It becomes plain eventually that what was originally a harmless vow of loyalty by four good friends has turned into something darker when one of the girls is emotionally harmed: it’s time for payback.
Ms French is acutely observant of human behaviour, whether it be giggly, impressionable teenagers or the adults in their lives. She has produced a beautifully written, compelling exploration of friendship in all its guises, and how far some will go to preserve it. Highly recommended.
Faithful Place, by Tana French
Undercover Detective Frank Mackey works for the Dublin Police; he’s very good at his job – and an absolute disaster at personal relationships: so far, so predictable for readers of suspense novels, but Tana French invests Frank with so much more than the usual Brilliant but Burnt-Out persona - all too readily adopted by other writers - that he is like a chilling but welcome blast of fresh and frosty air, holding the reader in his ruthless grip from the start of this story to the finish.
His life so far has had some huge disappointments: his first love Rosie stood him up on the night they were planning to run away from their gothically awful families to start a new life in England, and was never seen again; his marriage has ended in divorce and the associated recriminations; and apart from his job, his life doesn’t have much focus – except for the precious gift of his daughter, 9 year old Holly . Frank’s love for her is profound and complete and he constantly blesses the fact that she will never know the horrors of living with an alcoholic Da who terrorized not just Ma, but all five children of that blighted union, and that she has never met his terrible relatives – and nor will she – he thinks. He hasn’t seen any of his family except his sister Jackie for 22 years, until a derelict house undergoing demolition in Faithful Place, their street, reveals some secrets that require his professional attention and to his horror, he finds that Rosie didn’t stand him up after all: she was murdered.
This book is more than just a who-done-it; it’s more than the usual tragic family saga of violence and dashed hopes: it has more layers than an onion, and as each layer is peeled away more insights are given into each character and the terrible reasons for their behavior towards each other. And before the reader decides that they wouldn’t touch all this tragedy with a barge pole, I’d like to lure them back in with the solemn (!) promise of a laugh on every page: the uniquely Irish humour which has helped the entire race survive war through the centuries, famine and The Troubles is here in abundance: who else but an Irish author could write such great drama, and leaven it with such comedy. This is a wonderful story: highly recommended.