• The Secret Place by Tana French

    It’s no secret that I get excited about new Tana French novels.  I have been slowly doling them out to myself, using them as a special reading treat, because I have been afraid of running out of her novels.  Now that I’ve finished The Secret Place, I have read absolutely every word that she’s published and can only wait for her next book, The Trespasser, due out in the fall.  Tana French is such a favorite that I actually order her books in paper format, because I know even before reading them that I’m going to want to keep them in my collection forever.

    The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it.   If you’re not familiar with Tana French, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably working the case of a lifetime.  I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood.  And did I mention how Irish her novels are?  French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture.  Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.

    Her lip pulled back.  “Jesus fuck.  I thought they were gonna put me through a decontamination chamber, get rid of my accent.  Or throw me a cleaner’s uniform and point me at the tradesmen’s entrance.  You know what the fees are?  They start at eight grand a year.  That’s if you’re not boarding, or taking any extracurricular activities.  Choir, piano, drama.  You have any of that, in school?”

    “We had a football in the yard.”

    Conway liked that.  “One little geebag: I go into the holding room and call out her name for interview, and she goes, ‘Em, I can’t exactly go now, I’ve got my clarinet lesson in five?'”  That curl rising at the corner of her mouth again.  Whatever she’d said to the girl, she’d enjoyed it.  “Her interview lasted an hour.  Hate that.”

    “The school,” I said.  “Snobby and good, or just snobby?”

    “I could win the Lotto, still wouldn’t send my kid there.  But…” One-shouldered shrug.  “Small classes.  Young Scientist awards everywhere.  Everyone’s got perfect teeth, no one ever gets up the duff, and all the shiny little pedigree bitches go on to college.  I guess it’s good, if you’re OK with your kid turning out a snobby shite.”

    I said, “Holly’s da’s a cop.  A Dub.  From the Liberties.”

    “I know that.  You think I missed that?”

    One of the tropes of French’s novels that I really love is the way she pulls her protagonists from earlier books in the series, developing the character by throwing them into a first-person narrative.  In The Secret Place, this character is Stephen Moran from Faithful Place.  Two books ago, he was a young man at the start of his career who is pulled in as a floater on a high-profile murder case.  When he stands out for his work on that case, he’s promoted to the Cold Case department.  When Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of the detective of Faithful Place, comes in to him with a new piece of evidence in the year old murder of Chris Harper, a boy that was killed on the grounds of her posh boarding school, Stephen recognizes his golden opportunity.  Desperate to be promoted to the Murder squad, he takes the card that Holly has given him to Antoinette Conway, the Murder detective that has failed to solve Chris Harper’s murder. He asks for a chance to work the case with her.

    Ambitious, is our Stephen.

    But first he must convince Conway that he’s worth keeping around.  Unlike French’s other novels, The Secret Place takes place in a 24 hour time period, which serves as Stephen Moran’s trial by fire.  And it is a trial by fire, as Stephen and Conway visit the luxurious grounds of St. Kilda, a boarding school for high school girls, where the headmistress makes it all too clear that she’s more concerned about the reputation of the school than bringing any kind of justice to Chris or his family.  The students aren’t any better, where rival cliques of girls try to use the detectives for their own purposes.  In order to solve the mystery of Chris’s murder, Stephen and Conway have to wade through their lies and rivalries.

    Conway’s eyes narrowed.  She turned back to Joanne, slower.  Shoulders easing.

    Smile.  Steady sticky voice, like talking to a stupid toddler.

    “Joanne.  I know it’s hard for you, not being the center of attention.  I know you’re only dying to throw a tantrum and scream, ‘Everybody look at me!’ But I bet if you try your very best, you can hang on for just a few more minutes.  And when we’re done here, your friends can explain to you why this was important.  OK?”

    Joanne’s face was pure poison.  She looked forty.

    “Can you manage that for me?”

    Joanne thumped back in her chair, rolled her eyes.  “Whatever.”

    “Good girl.”

    The circle of arena eyes, appreciative; we had a winner.  Julia and Holly were both grinning.  Alison looked terrified and over the moon.

    As Stephen and Conway start piecing together the story as they interrogate the girls at St. Kilda’s, French uses flashbacks to follow the girls’ lives in the year prior to Chris’s death, using Holly and her friends to bring the reader along on a journey of suspense and suspicion.  She does it beautifully, capturing the emotion and precariousness of teenaged life in such a precise and realistic way that it seems impossible that French is not a teenager herself.  These moments sneak up on the reader, pulling us along with the events of school life at St Kilda’s until we feel like we’re one of Holly’s gang, navigating the beginnings of adulthood in a simultaneously thrilling and dangerous environment.

    As the countdown to Chris’s death marches on, French reveals the privately vicious world of the teenagers, as they jockey with one another for status.  Although their days are filled with classes and scheduled study time, their free hours are spent at the local shopping mall, where the boys from a nearby boys’ boarding school also hang out.  As the St. Kilda’s girls try to figure out boyfriends and friendships and identity, we are filled with the knowledge that this very normal tangle of relationships will turn into a deadly combination.  Each scene feels both like an opportunity to look for clues and a familiar and personal experience.

    Chris sits down next to her.  Selena has never been this close to him before, close enough to see the scattering of freckles along the tops of his cheekbones, the faintest shading of stubble on his chin; to smell him, spices and a thread of something wild and musky that makes her think of outside at night.  He feels different from anyone she’s ever met: charged up fuller, electric and sparking with three people’s worth of life packed into his skin.

    Readers of French’s other novels will also recognize the eerie role that the grounds of St. Kilda’s play in the novel.  The girls are locked in at night — and for good reason — as the woods on the property come alive at night with all types of wildlife. As the girls find their way out onto the grounds at night, St Kilda’s changes from an institution to a place of mystery and power, long before Chris Harper is found dead.  While some readers might find French’s tendency towards mysticism off-putting, The Secret Place gives a very concrete answer to each mystery that it presents, which was almost disappointing to this Tana French fan.


    • Publisher: Viking Press
    • Publish Date: September 2, 2014
    • Hardcover: 452 pages
    • ISBN: 9780670026326
    • Language: English
    • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

    My other Tana French reviews:

    Genre: contemporary, crime, fiction, mystery
  • The Likeness by Tana French

    the-likeness-190 I’m continuing my Tana French obsession, because I’m finding crime drama written with a focus on deep characterization really fascinating. French is a lyrical writer (my Irish husband says this is obviously because she’s Irish – you may disagree out of his earshot) and her prose often borders on poetry in its pacing and description. The New York Times review called it rambling, but they also misreported some key plot points in their opening paragraph, so there is only so much you can take seriously in their review. Still, to readers used to the greater brevity and plot-based action of most crime fiction, I could see that the amount of time spent in developing character could be frustrating. But it is the personalities that move the plot and anyone drawn to psychology will appreciate the deep and full characters in French’s writing.

    The Likeness picks up and fills in the final chapter of French’s first Dublin Murder Squad novel In The Woods, filling in details that Rob reports in a single paragraph about what happens in the next two years of Cassie Maddox’s life. The novel opens when Sam, still working in Murder, is called to the scene of the stabbed body of a woman who has been mysteriously posing as Cassie’s undercover persona Lexie Madison. This is a doppelgänger novel with a twist; the doubles cannot possibly have been in the same place at the same time, because one is the corpse and one is the cop.

    Cassie’s former Undercover boss Frank gets wind of the case and can’t resist setting up Cassie to go under cover as the murder victim to discover the crime. It’s an irresistible challenge for an undercover cop. It’s a really terrible idea in many ways; so many small details make up a person to their closest associates, so making potentially fatal mistakes is very easy, which is a large part of what drives the tension of the novel. But knowing full well that it’s a bad idea and that it will probably break her romance with the ever faithful good guy Sam, Cassie is talked into it anyway, because she can’t resist the thrill of it.

    Cassie quickly becomes absorbed in the world of Lexie Madison, a graduate student living in a unbelievable Anglo-Irish mansion with four other students. But they’re more than friends – they are the family that Cassie has never really experienced. Her professionalism quickly falls to the background as she’s drawn into their fantastical world, where pasts are a forbidden topic of discussion, but the great authors still live on. Tension with the locals quickly springs up, adding intrigue into the central story question. Was it an insider? Outsider? And who? But even more importantly, why? So often in crime drama, the why is just a way of moving the plot forward, but in French’s novels, the why is the crime and the mystery.

    There are some aspects of The Likeness that the reader just has to suspend disbelief for. Cassie having an unrelated doppelgänger is one of them, particularly given Cassie’s unusual French-Irish heritage. There are also a few leads that are never satisfactorily followed up on, which the author in me admires for mimicking life so thoroughly, but the reader wants satisfied. They are irrelevant to the central plot, but having been alluded to, its disappointing that my curiosity wasn’t satisfied. I put down the novel wanting even more detail, more understanding of the motivations and backgrounds of the characters, because that’s how real they are.

    On the whole, though, this was a novel that I won’t soon forget. It is equally as powerful as In The Woods and, despite sharing a world and a protagonist, still managed to be its own animal. All its done is make me hungry for the next French novel, Faithful Place, which I may have to put off until I have two days to dedicate to the reading, because this was a tough one to put down.

    Genre: crime, mystery, psychological thriller
  • Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason

    jar_city An elderly man has been murdered in his apartment with, of all things, an ashtray. When Detective Erlendur arrives on the scene with his partner Sigurdur Olí, they search the victim’s apartment but do not find much in the way of clues other than the photograph of a four-year-old girl that died thirty years ago. This begins the mystery. Who is the girl? What is her tie to the deceased? Is someone taking revenge for her death, thirty years later?

    As the plot unfolds, Erlendur and Sigurdur quickly discover that the victim was a serial rapist and that the girl is the offspring of one of his attacks. After the girl’s death, the mother committed suicide, and only her surviving and antagonistic sister can tell him the story of the crime. As Erlendur investigates, his heroine-addicted daughter Eva turns up on his doorstep, pregnant and needing a safe haven. When Erlendur is handed a side mystery to solve for a wealthy couple, which is a strange intrusion into the book’s pacing and theme, it is inexplicably Eva who manages to resolve it through her drug world contacts.

    This is a book that is drowning in pregnant women, pregnant women that are used mostly as plot devices. The characters are as stereotypical and flat as the plot. Erlendur is our flawed good guy hero, who is neglecting his health for the sake of the case and has problems with his children. (Don´t they all). Sigurdur Olí exists only as a comic sidekick, who occasionally manages to uncover something useful. The witnesses fill the gamut from antagonistic to eccentric, but they all become helpful in solving the mystery. Eva is the only one with any depth, which is focused around her struggle to change her life for the child that she’s carrying. It is Erlendur’s relationship with his daughter that is the most interesting, but it disappears two-thirds of the way into the book. As the action unfolds and the mystery draws to its conclusion, I was unsurprised by any of the events, even the dramatic final scene that probably worked out better in the movie than the novel. A crime drama without suspense or surprise goes downhill quickly.

    This is the third book in the Detective Erlendur series and I have not read the others, so it makes me wonder if this would have improved the reading. Although the central mystery is contained well and wrapped up within this novel, the flatness of the characters made Jar City suffer as a standalone novel. However, the writing itself is very Hemingwayesque sparse and there is a certain beauty to it. All the same, the randomness of many of the events that further the plot combined with the lack of character depth made this novel a slog for me.

    Yet, a lot of people really enjoyed this book. Jar City has been an extraordinarily successful novel. A movie was made and it’s a winner of the Glass Key award. Arnaldur[1] is one of the most popular Icelandic writers today, in a country with a deep and popular literary tradition. It almost makes me curious enough to try and track down the previous Inspector Erlendur novels to see if there’s something I’m missing. Almost, but not quite.

    [1] Arnaldur is Icelandic – Indriðason is a patronymic, not a last name. The proper way to refer to an Icelandic person is by their first name.

    Genre: crime, mystery
  • In the Woods by Tana French

    In the Woods by Tana FrenchI am not usually much one for cop dramas, but In the Woods got me.  Set in the fictional Murder Squad in Dublin, the story begins with the murder of Katie Devlin, a promising young ballet star, a twelve year old with nothing but hope and success in front of her.  One night she disappears and two days later, her body turns up in an archaeological dig, on an ancient Celtic altar.  That is the backdrop.  French takes you through the case as a plot movement, as a way of moving the story forward, but it isn’t the true narrative.

    The narrator is one Rob Ryan, formerly known as Adam Ryan, until the day he is out in the same woods that our young ballet star is murdered in.  He went in the woods with his two best friends, but came out alone, with blood all over his shoes.  The case is never solved and Ryan is sent to boarding school in England to get away from the publicity.  Katie’s murder brings him back to the woods, where he must confront his past, as the people and places he knew as a child have become important players in the investigation of Katie’s death.  He is paired with Cassie Maddox, the only woman on the Murder Squad and his best friend, and the real narrative of the novel is their partnership.

    The writing is beautiful.  The narrator is a thoughtful man, who tells the story from a distance of some years in the future.  His voice is lyrical and honest.  Unusual for a crime drama, there are still certain sentences and images that are lingering in my mind days after I’ve put down the book.  Although the novel turns on certain stereotypical elements, which set my teeth on edge for the first fifty page, I quickly forgot them in the art of the writing.  Once the drama ramped up and the loose threads that French placed into the beginning of the story began to be woven together into a cohesive whole, I found that I couldn’t put the book down.  French can turn a sentence and control a scene like a master. The characters are people that we know, reasonable and smart people placed into tough situations.  Maddox and Ryan are heroes, but human heroes who make dreadful mistakes and have to pay the cost of them.  Their back stories are relevant and move the plot, while adding depth to their characterization.  When the novel ended, I was sad that I wouldn’t get to spend more time with them, so I was delighted to learn that this is just a first in a series.  French just might be an exception for me; the mystery writer that I’m going to have to keep reading.

    • Publisher: Viking Press
    • Publish Date: May 17, 2007
    • Hardcover: 429 pages
    • ISBN:0670038601
    • Language: English
    • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Genre: crime, fiction, mystery, psychological thriller