Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, won the 2007 Edgar award for Best First Novel and made the Dublin Murder Squad and its detectives one of crime fiction’s most cherished investigative teams. French is now an accomplished crime writer, and, in addition to the awards for her debut, she won the L.A. Times prize for Best Mystery/Thriller in 2012 for Broken Harbour.
French’s fifth novel, The Secret Place, was released this month by Viking. The dysfunctional lives of wealthy young people have long interested writers and artists, and, in recent years, with the excesses of the Celtic Tiger era, Irish authors have added to the oeuvre. French joins compatriots like Kevin Powers (Bad Day in Blackrock) and Paul Murray (Skippy Dies) in exploring the darker side of privilege.
The Secret Place is set at St. Kilda’s, an exclusive girls’ school in the suburbs of South Dublin. Chris Harper, a pupil from the adjacent boys’ school, was murdered, and the case has remained unsolved for the past year. One day, a new lead arrives in the form of a photo that a 16-year-old girl brings to Det. Stephan Moran, who takes it to Det. Antoinette Conway, a talented but isolated woman within the Murder Squad, the elite unit that Moran is desperate to join. Together the two detectives drive out to the school to see what more they can discover.
This highly anticipated addition to the series is likely to thrill fans and win new readers. It has all the attributes of a crime novel but reads like literary fiction: part page-turner, part poem. Much of the excitement of The Secret Place has to do with the subject matter. The intensity of adolescent connection is foremost, a state that can override categorization or form.
The investigation focuses on two groups of girls who share a deep enmity. Over the course of the story, Moran and Conway must unravel the complex set of relationships between the girls, the victim, and their associates on grounds “pocked with clusters of girls, all blazing and amazed with inchoate love for one another and for their own growing closeness.”
One group of girls has a bond that is particularly opaque: Holly, Becca, Selena, and Julia are all 16; they share a room and, it seems, nearly all their thoughts. Eventually, as is sometimes the wont of fictional teenage creations, they appear capable of magic.
French says that she was careful to make these events plausible. It may be that the girls have become telepathic, or it may be that there is a very good and logical explanation. What
really matters, according to the author, is that “the girls come to believe that they possess these powers.”
In this, there is an echo of Broken Harbour, which featured a family that could not admit to their straitened circumstances, but were, as French explains, “determined to impose their reality on external reality.”
Broken Harbour and The Secret Place both refer to the economic collapse that followed Ireland’s Celtic Tiger period. French believes that this “dangerous relationship with reality” was central to the collapse—that people refused to engage with the outside world. She thinks the crash had its origins in a kind of naïveté among Irish people, and that this type of confused thinking is also common during adolescence, which, she says, is “all about the struggle for self-definition.”
Harper, the murdered teenager, may embody this state most. His character has become an archetype: a charismatic, well-to-do young man who is privately tortured. Despite his flaws, Harper is not unsympathetic. “Everybody projects on him,” French explains. “The world is projecting very hard on him and there is nothing left within that space for him to experiment with in any way.”
The depiction of the teenagers in the book as they react to their changing lives is touching, funny, and realistic. There is deep distrust between the two sexes. Any intimacy that develops among them is liable to be destroyed almost immediately. One of the saddest scenes in the book occurs when Julia realizes that Finn, an apparently trustworthy friend, is no longer a friend, their relationship undone by a single sentence. He has misinterpreted a question she asked about Harper, and because the truth is too complicated to explain to him, “If they run into each other on the street when they’re forty, Finn’s face will get that burned look and he’ll keep walking.”
Characterization is vivid in The Secret Place. French, a former actress who grew up on several continents, describes this element as her passion. Rather than plot, she says, she “stays faithful to the characters.” The stories proceed from there. The books are as much of a surprise to her as she writes as they are to her readers. She says she had no idea herself who killed Harper.
French never set out to be a crime writer. She remembers beginning her writing career with one paragraph and then another, and then “wanting to see” if she could write a chapter. At that point French says, she thought she was writing “literary fiction blurred with mystery.” When she had finished more chapters, a friend read them and put her in touch with Hodder and Stoughton, which encouraged her to continue. Their interest got her an agent and a deal was eventually negotiated with Hodder and Stoughton.
In the Woods was published as crime fiction, though French says she wasn’t sure that it fit the category, as it had no “real ending.” The publisher was clearly on the mark. The rest is history. The Secret Place is expected by Penguin, its U.S. publisher, to be one of the biggest bestsellers of 2014.
Being categorized within the crime genre doesn’t bother French, although she says that she has always read a wide range of books and has never understood why there should be such rigid distinctions between genres. She thinks that “spectrums” may be of greater relevance to literature than categories.
French writes six days per week for several hours per day and is about a third of the way through a new book (each takes about two years to write). Hint: this time Conway is the protagonist/narrator, which should make it a worthy follow-up to its predecessors.
Sinéad O’Shea is an Irish journalist and filmmaker.