This will be the last of four posts about Tana French’s series of novels set in and around the Dublin Murder Squad. I wrote separately about the first two novels in January and February 2021 and about the third and fourth together in March of this year. I considered discussing the third and fifth books in a single post, since The Secret Place (2014) and Faithful Place (2010) have several characters in common and are at least as closely linked as any other two novels in the series. The echo of “Place” in their titles is no accident. Ramifications of events in the earlier book are still being felt in the later one.
In the event, though, I decided to stick to the order of publication. It seemed best to keep a distance between the two books that feature detective Stephen Moran, Frank Mackey and his daughter Holly — rather as the author herself had done by inserting Broken Harbour (2012) between them. Seven years have passed between the events of the two “Place” books. Holly, who was 9 years old when her uncle Shay was arrested by Stephen Moran for the murders of two people, one of them Shay’s youngest brother Kevin. In The Secret Place, Holly is 16 and she has grown up a lot — though certainly not fully — in the meantime.
Each of the other 5 books in the series is narrated in the first person by its central character (who is different in each book). The Secret Place departs from this pattern in alternating chapters narrated by Stephen, and set in “the present” (around 2014) with chapters in the third person, set in Holly’s school about a year earlier, but cast in the present tense.
Combining first and third person narratives in the same book is not easy, as I’ve remarked before (for example in relation to Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer and Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places) and The Secret Place has struck some readers as the weakest book in French’s series, partly on this account (as a quick search of Goodreads will show). However, it seems to me that French made the right choice in adopting this approach.
It emphasizes not just the fact that there are aspects of the story that will remain obscure to Stephen, even after the arrest has been made and the case solved, but more generally that he is unbridgeably cut off from the world in which the semi-cloistered 15-year-old daughters of the wealthy and privileged live. The trick of writing about a time earlier than the main narrative in the present tense, while the main narrative is in the past, suggests that those 15-year-olds exist in a timeless, unchanging relation to each other. But the story makes it clear that this suggestion is true only in a very limited sense.
The novel tells two apparently incompatible, mutually inconsistent stories, one based squarely in the physical, material world of crime, detection, ambition and class conflict, the other … well, elsewhere. Surprisingly, some of the characters believe that punishment belongs to the second of these realms rather than to the first.
As fifteen-year-olds, Holly and her three closest friends make a vow that they’re not going to touch any boys until they’ve finished school and are in college. This isn’t some kind of purity or chastity fetish: they’re reacting to the behaviour of the boys from the nearby St Colm’s school, one of whom has spread false rumours about Julia and another of whom has messaged her an indecent picture. Holly and her friends are not against boys in principle, but they reject the boorish, puerile and sexist conduct of the limited set of boys they come into contact with (pp. 115–18).
They make their vow in a cypress grove in the school grounds. Afterwards, Selena shows the others that she has paranormal powers: she’s able to make the lights flicker and move objects around without touching them. The others find that they have these powers too. They steal a key from the infirmary that allows them to get into the main body of the school, whose windows are not locked, at night. They begin the visit the cypress grove while they’re supposed to be asleep.
When Joanne Heffernan, a bullying clique-leader, spots the fact that they’ve been escaping during the night — an infraction for which they could be expelled — she tries to blackmail them into giving her the key, but she can’t hold it because it burns her hand. (Julia agrees to make her a copy, to forestall the blackmail.)
Over the next few months, two of the group break the oath. Selena begins to fall for Chris Harper, one of the less objectionable boys from St Colm’s, and the eventual murder victim. Selena knows that Chris is in the habit of keeping several girlfriends on the go at a time and trying to hide their existence from each other by giving them separate, secret phones that are to be used only to contact him. Selena doesn’t mind this at first because she believes she’s not interested in him romantically, but she ends up kissing him, in the cypress grove where the oath was made — and which she thinks she’s somehow defiling by meeting him there at all:
She climbs the slope side by side with Chris and tells herself maybe it’s on purpose to help her, maybe the glade is going to keep her untempted, but she knows: she’d not getting help tonight. As they step into the clearing the cypress branches boil and hiss. This is a bad idea. (p. 301)
She expects to be punished for her transgression, but nothing bad happens immediately.
After that, she realises it’ll be less obvious than that, more oblique, a blow from the side when she isn’t braced. (p. 306)
Her three friends learn separately about her and Chris and react differently. Becca, the least mature of the four, intuits that the spirit or force in the grove will require a sacrifice in atonement for Selena’s breach of the oath.
The clouds pulse. They bubble at the edges.
Julia broke the vow; even if she was forced to, that doesn’t matter, not to this. So did Selena, whatever she did or didn’t do with him. If she danced along the line, if she broke up with him before they went right over, this doesn’t care. None of those things change the punishment.
Forgive us. Burn this out of us turn us pure again. Get him out get us back to how we used to be
The sky simmers and thrums. The answers heave under a thin skin of cloud.
Something is required.
Whatever you want. You want blood I’ll cut myself open
The light dims, rejecting. Not that. (pp. 451–2)
Becca knows that Julia also broke the vow because she has found an open packet of condoms down the side of her bed, where she was looking for another one of Chris’s phones. Julia has been having sex with Chris, whom she detests, to distract his attention from Selena. Julia feels that this is something that has been demanded of her by the grove as her own punishment.
Julia can’t breathe. She thinks like a howl: That’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair, whatever I do I’m going to get — I didn’t get off with Finn, I barely fucking touched him. I didn’t do anything I should have to pay for. The silence that meets her teaches her: this is not McKenna’s office. You don’t get to play with nitpicks, dodge whining around the edges of But-Miss-I-never-exactly-actually, not here. Unfair means nothing. She has been weighed up and the decision has been made. She has these few days before Selena takes Chris back, one last gift, in which to choose. (p. 406)
How seriously is the reader to take the supernatural or paranormal elements in the story? It’s essential to the motivations — and in one case to the motive — of Becca’s, Julia’s and Selena’s actions. But, apart from acting on and through the consciences of the characters, it has very little impact on the material world. True, it briefly burns Joanne’s hand — with no discernable lasting effect — but the murder weapon is wielded manually by the killer who had to select it from the implements to hand, and who turns out to have been seen while doing so.
On the other hand, the grove, which forms part of the well tended gardens of an expensive private school, has something in common with the disappearing wild and ancient woods of the first novel, about which I wrote:
… it does seem that this spirit (if we are to take it seriously) operates through human agency. The clear example of this is the laughing “watcher” who supervises the rape of Sandra by Shane Waters, Jonathan Devlin and Cathal Mills. The three young men are the ones who commit the evil act, but they seem to be under some malign influence. Similarly, if a pagan god had “required” the sacrifice of Jamie and Peter, there is good reason to think that the actual killer was human.
It is notable that In the Woods and The Secret Place are the only two novels in the series in which ancient pagan spirits play an apparent part. (The mysteriously evasive but intrusive animal who penetrates the Spains’ house in Broken Harbour is probably the invention of Pat Spain’s intolerably stressed imagination.) The two novels most closely connected with The Secret Place — Faithful Place, as we’ve seen, and The Trespasser, in which the pairing of Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway will reappear — are very solidly based in the material world, the realm that I described as being concerned with crime, detection, ambition and class conflict.
And that’s the world that is very much in evidence in the alternating first-person chapters of The Secret Place. Stephen Moran, the narrator, is not (yet) a member of the Murder Squad, but has inserted himself into the investigation with every intention of making the most of an opportunity that can’t be expected to present itself again. In Faithful Place (the other novel in the series to be narrated by a detective who is not in Murder), Stephen was a floater who agreed to leak information from the investigation to Frank Mackey. At the end, Mackey called Stephen in to make the arrest, over the head of the oblivious detective in charge of the case, Scorcher Kennedy. This put Stephen in Mackey’s good books but made lots of other detectives — particularly in Murder — wary of him.
At the start of the novel, Stephen has been in Cold Cases for several years, originally on Mackey’s recommendation. He likes Cold Cases but still nurses an ambition to transfer to Murder. The Superintendent there, O’Kelly, is opposed to Stephen’s transfer into the squad because of what he did to Scorcher, whom O’Kelly considered his best detective. Antoinette Conway is now in charge of the investigation into Chris Harper’s murder which is stalled a year on from his death. She grudgingly allows Stephen to tag along because of his previous experience of getting evidence out of a recalcitrant Holly. Stephen has a day — a very long day, as it turns out — to prove that he can solve a murder.
Stephen is easy going and makes a point of getting on with people, just because it makes his job — and life generally — easier. He’s good at making himself likeable, and liked, but he’s not someone who particularly values friendship:
I said people mostly like me. True: they do, always have. Plenty of people ready to be my mates, always. That doesn’t mean I want to be theirs. A few scoops, a bit of snooker, watch the match, lovely, I’m on. The more than that, the real thing: no. Not my scene. (p. 218)
He gets on with Mackey (not the easiest person in the world to get along with, though he’s superficially a bit mellower since reconciling with his wife, Olivia) because Mackey has done him favours in the past and can be expected to do so again.
Somewhat belatedly, Stephen realizes that Antoinette has had Holly in her sights as the likeliest suspect since the early days of the investigation. If Holly is a suspect and they want to ask her any more questions, they have to do so under caution. Also, because of her age, they need to have an appropriate adult present, so Stephen phones her father.
The long interview of Holly by Stephen and Antoinette, with Frank looking on and sometimes chipping in, is the climax of the first-person part of the book. As it progresses, Stephen comes to believe that Antoinette is right (p. 373): Holly is indeed the killer. During a break, Frank whispers to Stephen that, if he’s right, Frank will kill him. At that point, Stephen realizes that Frank, too, is convinced of Holly’s guilt — and that he himself is to blame for what is “in Holly’s blood” (p. 379).
The main thing that brings Holly under suspicion is her apparently inconsistent behaviour, which in turn results from the fact that she is part adult, experienced in the working of the criminal justice system, and still part child. When Antoinette asks Holly why she used such an oblique approach to getting Stephen involved, instead of simply telling him what she suspected, Stephen suggests that it was because she didn’t want to be a rat.
“Again,” Holly said. Her eyes stayed closed. “I didn’t want to be a rat again.” (p. 512)
The interview and its aftermath succeed in creating a final, irreparable breach between Holly and her father, who had come along expecting to protect her. In spite of his denial, she sees that he had, for a while, thought she was the murderer. And then, immediately afterwards, he held her back, prevented her from intervening, while Stephen questioned the actual killer. Holly is sure that she could have stopped her from confessing.
More than once before, I’ve quoted Tana French’s rationale for having a different narrator for each book:
I could either keep dumping this poor character into huge life-defining crises every couple of years, in which case he’s going to end up in a hospital, or I could switch narrator.
If The Secret Place has a weakness, it may be that too many of its characters suffer a huge, life-defining crisis: the devastation is arguably spread too widely. As Stephen gets a decisive piece of information from Julia, he thinks:
She had guts, Julia. Guts and enough loyalty for a dozen. She was good stuff. I wished I knew how badly we were going to break her heart. (p. 472)
Julia isn’t alone: Selena, Holly and Frank (at least) all get their hearts broken too. In the next novel, the final one in the series, we’ll discover that Stephen has somewhere along the way learned the value of loyalty. Perhaps it was from Julia’s example.
The Trespasser (2016) features the same two detectives again, but now in a starkly different setting. While the school in the previous novel was located in an affluent part of south Dublin, awash in wealth and privilege, the later novel centres on Stoneybatter, a slowly gentrifying locality in the north-west of the city, just inside the North Circular Road. This time the narrator is Antoinette Conway, who was the most junior detective on the Murder Squad until Stephen Moran finally got to transfer into it, on her recommendation and on the strength of his “solve” of the Chris Harper murder.
The story compares and contrasts the different approaches to forging a female identity adopted by Antoinette and the victim, a younger woman named Aislinn Murray. Antoinette lives, as had Aislinn, in a former worker’s cottage in Stoneybatter. The two dwellings are structurally identical but could hardly be less alike in decor. When Antoinette and Stephen are called to the murder scene, Aislinn’s house, Antoinette notes that:
… the room looks like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home app where you plug in your budget and your favourite colours, and the while thing arrives in a van the next day. (p. 14)
No personal style, in other words, unlike Antoinette’s place, just 10 minutes walk away, presumably built by the same builders or at least to the same plan. Unlike, too, the home of Aislinn’s best friend and emergency contact, Lucy Riordan. Lucy lives in a rented flat in Rathmines which is decorated cheaply but stylishly and with plenty of personal flair. She works in theatre and is not particularly well off.
From Lucy, the detectives learn that Aislinn underwent a complete change of image after the death of her mother, going blonde and losing a significant amount of weight. At the crime scene, Antoinette’s first impression is that the victim “looks like Dead Barbie” (p. 15). When she gets the chance to look more closely, she sums up:
… no stunner, but pretty enough, and she worked hard at it. She has on a truckload of makeup, the full works and done right; her nose and her chin would be little-girl cute, only they have that jutting look that comes with long-term low-level starvation. (p. 18)
Aislinn’s choices in terms of personal appearance and how she lived contrast sharply with the detective’s. Antoinette is tall and athletic looking; she wears relatively expensive and well cut suits but no makeup at work, and tends to keep her hair up in a bun. She carries work documents in a businesslike satchel. Her look proclaims her a professional, demanding of respect.
Antoinette is at first a bit contemptuous of Aislinn’s appearance and what she would presumably have called her lifestyle, but as she learns what Aislinn was actually up to she begins to respect them a bit more:
Anyone who turns herself into Barbie because that’s the only way she feels worthwhile needs a kick up the hole, but someone who does it for a revenge mission deserves a few points for determination. (p. 244)
When Aislinn was a child, her father disappeared, and her mother, already neurotic, never got over it. Years later, after her mother had died, Aislinn set out to discover what had happened to him. Eventually, she found out that not only had the detectives from Missing Persons tracked him down in England, but had actually got his permission to tell his wife that he was alive and well and living with another woman. However, one of the detectives, McCann, had taken it on himself to hold back this information from Aislinn’s mother (to whom he was obviously attracted).
On learning this, Aislinn had been furious: she resolved to ruin McCann’s life as payback for the way he had ruined her mother’s (and her own childhood). Her plan — not the most rational or, as it turned out, the safest — had been to make McCann fall in love with her and leave his wife and family, and then to dump him. Hence her Barbie performance. As she had said to Lucy Riordan:
“I don’t know what type he goes for — except my mum’s type and I can’t look anything like her or he’ll suss me. So I have to look generic. I have to be someone who any guy in the world would think was pretty, so even if he’s not actually attracted to me, being with me will be too much of an ego-boost to resist. I’ll have plenty of time afterwards to figure out what I like.” (p. 360)
On hearing this from Lucy, Antoinette had accurately characterized Aislinn’s plan as “idiotic shite” (p. 360), while admitting a grudging admiration for the way she had gone about putting it into effect. It worked surprisingly well, up to the moment her skull smashed into the fireplace surround.
Another way in which Antoinette and Aislinn are similar but different is in their missing fathers. Unlike Aislinn, Antoinette never knew her father. Throughout her childhood, her mother told her various inconsistent stories about him, none of them true: he was an Egyptian prince, then a Saudi medical student and last of all a Brazilian guitarist.
Her father eventually tracks her down — he hadn’t known she existed until he saw a picture in a newspaper of a woman who, he believed, could only be his daughter — but we learn very little about him except that he’s English and he sounds educated. Stephen teases Antoinette that she’s now half-English — and middle class.
Antoinette has a question for her father, but it has nothing to do with his background or his life: she merely wants to know how he found her address. Once he has answered that she throws him out, having first made it clear that she doesn’t want to see him again.
Antoinette has been feeling far from welcome in the Murder Squad: O’Kelly keeps giving her uninteresting, unchallenging and dispiriting domestic violence killings — boy-beats-girl, as she puts it (p. 15). When she leaves a witness statement on her desk, the final page with the witness’s signature disappears, so she has to go through the tedious process of interviewing the witness again. Somebody — necessarily a member of the squad — urinated in her locker.
She wonders if Stephen, whom she labels a people-pleaser, would like to see her leave the squad, as he would be able to get on better with the othe male detectives in her absence. Might he even be working to undermine her? It turns out in the end that the harassment and hostility is all emanating from one man: he had smacked her backside when she first started on the squad and she’d nearly broken his finger in response.
Another detective, Don Breslin, has been putting obstacles in her way in the Aislinn Murray murder but that turns out to be for reasons specific to the case. In the end, Stephen is able to reassure her that what she had perceived as a general hostility to her femaleness and her complicated ethnicity was almost entirely down to one humiliated, disgruntled sexist. Why didn’t Steve tell her this earlier? She wasn’t the kind of person who would confide her suspicions to him, or to let her discomfiture become obvious. Stephen didn’t know that she needed reassurance, and had no reason to suppose that she’d react well if he were to offer it unprompted.
In the end, when Antoinette realizes that she has to go to O’Kelly and tell him that (a) one of his detectives is guilty of murder and (b) they don’t have enough evidence to prove it, Steve goes along with her, notwithstanding the obvious risk to his own career. Somewhere along the way, his priorities have changed.
That was a bit longer — and a bit later — than usual. Next time, I’m going to take another look at spy fiction, having posted about John le Carré’s and Graham Greene’s reluctant defectors back in April. I’ll be concentrating on Kate Atkinson’s Transcription (2018).
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