...they barely know he’s there. They feel someone, the green fizz and force of him, the same way they feel hot patches of it pulsing all across the Field; but if you closed their eyes and asked them who it was, none of them would be able to name Chris. He has six months, three weeks and a day left to live.
It's a year since Chris Harper's body was discovered in the grounds of St Kilda's, an elite girls' school. He was sixteen when he was killed: a pupil at Colm's, the neighbouring boys' school: well-liked, popular, good-looking, average. His murderer has never been identified.
Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (who's featured in previous Tana French novels), pays a visit to her father's colleague Stephen Moran, with new evidence. St Kilda's has a 'Secret Place', a board where girls can pin anonymous confessions and thoughts. Last night, someone put up a photo of Chris Harper with 'I know who killed him' pasted across it.
Moran is desperate to get into the Murder Squad, so ingratiates himself with Antoinette Conway, the prickly and unpartnered detective in charge of the case. Both from working-class backgrounds, the two are oddly vulnerable to, easily wrongfooted by the privilege and elitism they encounter at St Kilda's. Over the course of a single day, though, they untangle a very knotted web of deceit and motivation to reveal who wielded the murder weapon.
Alternating with their investigations are chapters covering the last months of Chris Harper's life, though -- as in the excerpt quoted above -- he's not a protagonist. Holly and her three close friends (Selena, Julia and Becca) navigate the peaks and troughs of teenage life in the claustrophobic, mercurial atmosphere of the school. Their nemeses, Joanne Heffernan, and her three cronies, discover that Holly's group like to sneak out at night and visit a cypress grove in the grounds. (Another 'secret place': and of course there's the girls' own bodies, suddenly becoming attractive to the opposite sex.) Blackmail, viciousness and rumour proliferate. It doesn't help that Holly & co have sworn off relationships after Julia is targetted by a boy she turned down. In the eyes of their classmates, they have committed the cardinal sin of not being Normal. From there to accusations of murder and witchcraft is a small step for a teenage drama queen.
Tana French captures the loving friendship -- and its converse, the spiteful animosity -- of teenage girls. Their sense of outrage as they discover the 'mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them'; the feeling that, as a young woman, you should be scared of and worried about every aspect of your life; the ecstatic intimacy of a shared secret – all sharply and crisply conveyed. God, I'm glad my teenage years are far and firmly in my past.
So, 'who wielded the murder weapon'? Because this is a Tana French novel, I've phrased that very deliberately. As in French's previous novels, there are strange things happening -- most of them unknown to Moran and Conway, and only revealed in the alternating chapters that focus on Holly and her friends -- and, again as in previous novels, much is left unexplained. If you read The Secret Place as a straightforward murder mystery, I suspect it'll be a beautifully-written disappointment*. If, like me, your mind pricks up when someone mentions the hyacinths left on Chris Harper's body (and if, like me, you suspect that naming your daughter 'Selena' is asking for trouble) then you'll find this a fascinating and chilling account of the mythic colliding with mundane life.
*a quick glance at reviews on Amazon confirms this. Though some people didn't like the prose either.