Imagine a thermometer. At the bottom at the people we consider acquaintances. We say hi when we see them, but that’s about all. At the top are the friends we would do absolutely anything for, up to and including committing crimes. Where things go wrong is when the thermometers are not at the same levels between people we consider friends; a person we would bury bodies for might not do the same. The events of The Secret Place, by Tana French, are set at that point of disconnection. And, like all tragedies, the characters who are misaligned friends have no idea that they are misaligned.
The Secret Place is set seven years after the events of Faithful Place and features an important character from that book. Holly Mackey seems cursed to have knowledge that she doesn’t want to have and has to share that knowledge with the police. She very much does not want to be a snitch, but she keeps finding things out that can help solve murders. At the beginning of The Secret Place, Holly finds Detective Stephen Moran, who took her statement when she was nine. She hands over a card from the bulletin board where the students of St. Kilda’s school share their secrets. The card says that whoever posted it knows who killed a teenaged boy from the neighboring boy’s school the previous summer. The card is enough to make the cold case go hot again but, on its own, it’s not enough to pinpoint the murderer without a lot of extra work.
Stephen is a chameleon. He has a knack for knowing what witnesses and suspects want to hear, then shift his words and personality to give it to them. He can charm. He can comfort. He can wheedle. Because he’s officially assigned to cold cases, Stephen can’t work alone. So he ends up partnered with Antoinette Conway, the pariah of the homicide department. She has zero talent (or, to be fair, interest) in being what people want. She’s prickly and blunt where Stephen is smooth. Together, though, they are a good team. They slowly start to build a friendship over the course of the very tense, very twisted, very exhausting day they spend at St. Kilda’s, interviewing Holly and seven other girls who didn’t tell everything they knew last year when Conway was investigating the death of Chris Harper.
The investigation reveals as much or more about friendship as it does about the murder. On top of that, there are also the disturbing politics of rival groups of friends. Holly and her friends, who believe they are as close and devoted as sisters, loathe and are loathed by the popular girls, a gang run by a horribly precocious manipulator. Sadly for Holly’s group, it appears that they were so busy protecting each other that they stopped talking about their secrets. From the space of a year, it’s clear exactly how Holly and her friends went wrong, but I couldn’t stop myself from feeling sorry from them—while also wanting to tell them that it was okay and actually better if they talked to teach other.
The Secret Place is not my favorite book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but I still enjoyed it quite a lot. It was a treat to see Holly and her irrepressible father, Frank Mackey, again. French truly is a master of creating believable, complete psychological portraits of multiple characters. The mystery has plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting. I think what put me off a little was one of the narrators of the audiobook I listened to. The chapters narrated by the female characters and set in the months before the murder are read by Lara Hutchinson, who does just fine. Stephen Hogan, the reader of the other chapters (narrated by Stephen Moran) makes the teenaged girls sound grating, whiny, and infuriatingly teenaged. I’m not sure if it’s just that I don’t like listening to teenagers at their worst or the choices made by , but I really didn’t like listening to that dialogue. It’s probably not fair of me to ding this book because of the narration so I would say to readers who are interested in The Secret Place: try it in print.