Saturday, November 22, 2014

What we're reading: Tana French

As The Secret Place, by Tana French, opens, it has been a year since a boy named Chris Harper was found murdered on the grounds of a girls' boarding school in Dublin. Detective Stephen Moran, an ambitious young man who would love to be part of the murder squad, is given a chance to prove himself when Holly Mackey, a student at the school (and the daughter of one of his mentors on the police force) brings him a clue that could reignite this almost-cold case. Instead of just handing it over to the Murder Squad to investigate, he makes a daring play to get Detective Antoinette Conway, a newbie outsider in the squad, to let him help her solve the crime.

The clues, however, keep leading back to Holly and her three friends, or perhaps to their hateful rival clique at St. Kilda's. The school is adamant about keeping this under wraps so as not to further spook parents into removing the students they have left after the previous year's murder investigation, and Moran knows that if the possible involvement of the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey gets out, careers will be on the line--mostly his.

I seem to be on a roll, ending up with boarding school books even when I'm not looking for them--what is the eternal fascination with the closed world of the boarding school? French has some characters in this one that could definitely go head to head with the sociopaths in Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican (previously reviewed here), and the slow, golden intimacy of the four girls at the forefront of the mystery reminded me weirdly of the relationships forged in the miniseries Brideshead Revisited. The hesitant creation of a working relationship between the two detectives, too, was poignant and engaging.

Tana French just gets better. To call her books "mysteries" or "thrillers" is to miss about 90 percent of the point, although they are indeed mysteries and they are so thrilling. To call them literary fiction, with the elite uppercrustness that implies, would do a disservice to them, although her writing is extremely literary. They are brilliant, thorough, and intimate character studies, they are rife with a burgeoning sense of place, and the story-telling is riveting. I have seen reviews by people who drowned in the reams of detail and just wanted to go read a mystery with some straightforward and simple guy--Spencer or Jack Reacher or Matthew Scudder--at the wheel, and I can see the appeal of those kinds of stories too…but for the days when you want to be breathlessly enthralled, unable to stop until you reach the end...Tana French.

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