Sunday, October 12, 2014

Best Yet from Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad: THE SECRET PLACE

Readers and writers alike know about the state called "flow" (named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi): when you're doing something that's so "right" for you that you lose track of time. It's the ultimate reward for people who become really good at what they love.

My guess from reading the newest Tana French "Dublin Murder Squad" crime novel is that French goes beyond "flow" to "glow" -- that red-hot powerful form of writing that speaks powerful truths inside a compelling story.

But I wasn't ready for THE SECRET PLACE in any sense. First of all, I'm already accustomed to French's established pattern of moving from one investigator to another in her Dublin Murder Squad as she moves to each new novel. And her previous titles have often delved into the depression and sense of guilt that police work can bring, along with the pervasive disorder of Irish life that lingers from the long war years of "the Troubles."

This time, though, she's alternating two points of view as she works this double narrative toward a climax of revelation at a girls' boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. One strand is a braid of experiences of two foursomes of girls in the school -- more or less, a nice group of long-time loyal friends, and a truly nasty group led by a near-psychotic manipulator who loves punishing others. Best of the nice group is Holly Mackey, a teen already known to Cold Case detective Stephen Moran -- she'd been a witness when a small child, and he'd helped her to testify and provided some support for her recovery back then. Now he's stuck in Cold Cases, unable to enter the highly desirable Murder Squad, thanks to a twist from that earlier case. And Holly's at his desk, carrying evidence related to a year-old death discovered at the girls' school. Could it be his chance to work with Murder after all?

Almost immediately, Moran realizes he's in a bad bind: The detective on the death of wealthy Chris Harper, a boy from another boarding school, is a woman, Antoinette Conway, tough and acerbic and not willing to give Moran much room to enter the tiny fragment of the squad that she's claimed for her own -- in the face of a group of Murder detectives who despise her and effectively wall her out of the team where she's supposed to work.

Let me add right away that the title, THE SECRET PLACE, is itself an example of the twists within this case. It's not a place that's hidden -- it's a message board in plain sight at Holly's boarding school, where the girls are welcome to post anonymous messages ... that is, to air their secrets, whether of fact or emotion or, inevitably, of fictional troublemaking. And to which of these does the evidence belong that Holly's brought to Moran?

Rich with insight into the barriers and markers of class, as well as the painful frictions of women officers in rough packs of men, and the longings and misunderstandings of teenaged girls (hint: think Salem Witch Trials, as well as Jennifer McMahon), THE SECRET PLACE is tight, compelling, and boldly twisted to prevent guessing ahead at the actual criminal and motive, any further than Moran and Conway can see. And that's not far ahead at all, as the head of school does her best to wall them out, the girls manipulate and mislead, and danger scents the very air of what should have been a safe retreat for students.

I'm shelving my Tana French books with those by Stuart Neville, Åsa Larsson, Vidar Sundstøl, Mary Kubica, and the best of Louise Penny and John Le Carré and Charles McCarry -- authors who know where they want to take us, and will invent whatever framework is necessary to pull us, heart and soul, into the pressing story that they need to tell.

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