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Review: Tana French's 'Secret Place' a taut, shimmering mystery

St. Kilda's is an exclusive school in Dublin: "Girls' secondary, private, leafy suburb. Nuns." Its halls teem with long-haired, coltish, chattering teens from well-off families. It's not supposed to be the kind of place where murder happens.

But by the end of one very long day within its graceful, golden-lighted halls, Detective Stephen Moran will say, "If I've learned one thing today, it's that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods."

St. Kilda's is the setting for The Secret Place, Tana French's killer fifth novel about the Dublin Murder Squad. It's the kind of book that makes me snap at innocent people: "Don't bother me! I'm reading!"

French, who was born in the United States but has long lived in Dublin, doesn't follow the usual series format of bringing back the same central character. Instead, each of her books focuses on a different member of the Murder Squad.

In The Secret Place, a main character and the narrator of the book's present-day sections is Moran, who was a minor character in Faithful Place, the series' second book. This time the main character of Faithful Place, Detective Frank Mackey, is a minor character, while Mackey's daughter, Holly, a St. Kilda's girl, is a main character.

Got that? It's going to get a lot more complicated. Moran is working on the Cold Case squad and longing for Murder when Holly comes to his office one morning. He last saw her several years before, when she was a little girl who had witnessed a crime and he was the only police officer she would allow to question her.

Now she's 16, and she's found herself on the periphery of another crime. The year before, a teenage boy, Chris Harper, turned up on the grounds of St. Kilda's with his head bashed in. A student at St. Colm's, a nearby, equally posh boys school, Chris was handsome and popular. But no one knew why he was at St. Kilda's in the middle of the night, when his death occurred, or why anyone would want to kill him. Despite a flurry of investigation at first, the case is still unsolved.

What Holly has for Moran is a card she noticed on the Secret Place, a bulletin board at her school where students can post anonymous expressions of their feelings. It's a photo of a smiling Chris. "Glued below his face, across his blue T-shirt: words cut out of a book, spaced wide like a ransom note. Neat edges, snipped close.

"I know who killed him."

Moran, an ambitious young man, heads straight for the detective in charge of the case. Antoinette Conway is a fierce, no-nonsense investigator who jumps at the chance to solve the murder and increase her cred in a department still plagued by antediluvian sexism.

The two will spend a day and a night at St. Kilda's, questioning two groups of girls who knew Chris — and who detest each other. One of those quartets includes Holly, and in sections that alternate with Moran's, the events surrounding Chris' death are told from those girls' points of view. Holly is the grounded one, Becca is awkward and naive, Julia is a bold wise-cracker, and Selena is sweetly dreamy and vulnerable. They share a room and the kind of intense, protective friendship that happens only at that age, like so many other intense experiences.

"You forget what it was like," French writes. "You'd swear on your life that you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled bright enough to scald you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds."

That intensity also applies to the girls' rivalry with the four girls they call the Daleks (after cyborg villains on Doctor Who), led by the razor-tongued Joanne. Chris Harper, it seems, got in the middle of that longtime war when he secretly courted a girl, giving her a pink flip phone — he had a matching red one — she was to use only to exchange texts with him. But, as Moran and Conway discover, he gave another girl a secret pink flip phone, too, and maybe another, until who had which phone when and just who typed what text into it becomes a puzzle the case hinges upon.

The Secret Place simmers and seethes with skillfully crafted suspense, and French's prose often shines with beauty. But her strongest point is her characters, who are sharply observed and layered into complex and surprising people, revealed both in the wild memories of the flashback sequences and the crushing pressure of the interrogations in the present.

By the end of that long day, everything will change, for the girls and for the investigators — although not every mystery can be solved. "Posh girls' school," Moran thinks, "lovely and safe, I'd've thought, if I'd thought. Beats a council estate where the buses won't go. But I was starting to see it, out of the corner of my eye: the shimmer in the air that says danger."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Secret Place

By Tana French

Viking, 452 pages, $27.95

Review: Tana French's 'Secret Place' a taut, shimmering mystery 08/27/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 11:24am]

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