The Secret Place

A Novel
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“An absolutely mesmerizing read. . . . Tana French is simply this: a truly great writer.” —Gillian Flynn

Read the New York Times bestseller by Tana French, author of The Witch Elm and “the most important crime novelist to emerge in the past 10 years” (The Washington Post).

A year ago a boy was found murdered at a girlsʼ boarding school, and the case was never solved. Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to join Dublin’s Murder Squad when sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey arrives in his office with a photo of the boy with the caption: “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.” Stephen joins with Detective Antoinette Conway to reopen the case—beneath the watchful eye of Holly’s father, fellow detective Frank Mackey. With the clues leading back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends, to their rival clique, and to the tangle of relationships that bound them all to the murdered boy, the private underworld of teenage girls turns out to be more mysterious and more dangerous than the detectives imagined.

Praise

“an absolutely mesmerizing read.”
—Gillian Flynn
 
“a book full of giddy, slangy, devious schoolgirls who cannot be trusted about anything, at least not on the first, second, third or fourth rounds of questioning...Part of this book’s trickiness is its way of letting characters hide the truth behind the smoke screen of language and let both readers and investigators gradually figure out who is lying.”
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
 
“There are echoes of Leopold and Loeb and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but the language and landscape are unmistakably French’s, as is the way she excavates the past to illuminate the present.”
O Magazine
 
“Terrific—terrifying, amazing, and the prose is incandescent.”
—Stephen King
 
“Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there…[The Secret Place is] dizzyingly addictive…don’t miss this one.”
The Associated Press*
 
“clever and crude and vulgar and vicious in one breath and deeply, profoundly tragic in the next.”
—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
 
 “French is such a gorgeous writer: She’s a poet of mood and a master builder of plots . . . The Secret Place is another eerie triumph for French.”
—Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
 
“French pegs each [character] with cold, cruel precision, one by one, like a knife thrower popping balloons…it makes the world of The Secret Place pop into prickly-sharp focus and full color.”
— Lev Grossman, Time

 
The Secret Place will keep you up all night.”
Bustle.com

The Secret Place may be French’s best novel yet and that’s saying something. She’s that good.”
The New York Daily News
 
 “rendered vividly, with sharp dialogue and finely observed detail.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
Gone Girl fans will revel in this enthralling thriller.”
People
 
“[Tana French’s] mysteries are less procedurals and more thoughtful, smart, stunningly clever and well-written literary yarns.”
USA Today
 
“A twisting, teasing, and tense murder mystery that, while impressive in the matter of whodunit, soars on the psychological insights of whydunit. The Secret Place rips you to shreds, too, but in all the right ways. While channeling teens and cops alike, Tana French has – OMG, like, totes, amazeball – written a novel that seems all but certain to be among the best mysteries of the year”
The Christian Science Monitor

The Secret Place is Tana French’s latest extraordinary procedural… French’s plots are inventive and her prose is elegant, but she’s always been more interested in character development. Here, her steely gaze brilliantly nails the baffled and baffling emotions of teenagers on the verge of adulthood.”
The Seattle Times
 
“French…writes beautifully.”
The Boston Globe
 
The Secret Place is an absorbing take on a hot subgenre by one of our most skillful suspense novelists.”
Popmatters.com
 
“[Tana French] simply nails it…I just could not put it down!”
BookPage
 
The Secret Place simmers and seethes with skillfully crafted suspense, and French's prose often shines with beauty. But her strongest point is her characters, who are sharply observed and layered into complex and surprising people, revealed both in the wild memories of the flashback sequences and the crushing pressure of the interrogations in the present.”
Tampa Bay Times
 
“If you’re a thriller fan and haven’t discovered the wonders of Tana French, her latest, The Secret Place, will surely get you hooked, and by hooked, we mean feverishly reading till the wee hours… An exceptional thriller. Be prepared — but the ride will be worth it.”
Dallas Morning News
 
“Mesmerizing…French stealthily spins a web of teenage secrets with a very adult crime at the center.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
 
“Complex characters and a vivid sense of place are at the heart of French’s literary success…”
Booklist (Starred Review)
 
“[Tana French] has few peers in her combination of literary stylishness and intricate, clockwork plotting… Beyond the murder mystery, which leaves the reader in suspense throughout, the novel explores the mysteries of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, not only among adolescents, but within the police force as well. Everyone is this meticulously crafted novel might be playing—or being played by—everyone else.”
Kirkus (Starred Review)
 
“Tana French expertly lays bare the striations of age, class and gender that keep people apart while making them need each other more. With carefully crafted characters and motives, French not only makes a boarding school murder seem plausible, she makes the reader wonder how teenagers could ever live in such close quarters without doing each other grievous bodily harm.”
Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)

Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Tana French

Holly dumped her schoolbag on the floor. Hooked a thumb under her lapel, to point the crest at me. Said, ‘I go to Kilda’s now.’ And watched me.

St Kilda’s: the kind of school the likes of me aren’t supposed to have heard of. Never would have heard of, if it wasn’t for a dead young fella.

Girls’ secondary, private, leafy suburb. Nuns. A year back, two of the nuns went for an early stroll and found a boy lying in a grove of trees, in a back corner of the school grounds. At first they thought he was asleep, drunk maybe. The full-on nun-voice thunder: Young man! But he didn’t move.

Christopher Harper, sixteen, from the boys’ school one road and two extra-high walls away. Sometime during the night, someone had bashed his head in.

Enough manpower to build an office block, enough overtime to pay off mortgages, enough paper to dam a river. A dodgy janitor, handyman, something: eliminated. A classmate who’d had a punch-up with the victim: eliminated. Local scary non-nationals seen being locally scary: eliminated.

Then nothing. No more suspects, no reason why Christopher was on St Kilda’s grounds. Then less overtime, and fewer men, and more nothing. You can’t say it, not with a kid for a victim, but the case was done.

Holly pulled her lapel straight again. ‘You know about Chris Harper,’ she said. ‘Right?’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Were you at St Kilda’s back then?’

‘Yeah. I’ve been there since first year.’

And left it at that, making me work for every step. One wrong question and she’d be gone, I’d be thrown away: got too old, another useless adult who didn’t understand. I picked carefully.

‘Are you a boarder?’

‘The last two years, yeah.’

‘Were you there the night it happened?’

‘The night Chris got killed.’

Blue flash of annoyance. No patience for pussyfooting, or anyway not from other people.

‘The night Chris got killed,’ I said. ‘Were you there?’

‘I wasn’t there there. Obviously. But I was in school, yeah.’

‘Did you see something? Hear something?’

Annoyance again, sparking hotter this time. ‘They already asked me that. The Murder detectives. They asked all of us, like, a thousand times.’

I said, ‘But you could have remembered something since. Or changed your mind about keeping something quiet.’

‘I’m not stupid. I know how this stuff works. Remember?’ She was on her toes, ready to head for the door.

Change of tack. ‘Did you know Chris?’

Holly quieted. ‘Just from around. Our schools do stuff together; you get to know people. We weren’t close, or anything, but our gangs had hung out together a bunch of times.’

‘What was he like?’

Shrug. ‘A guy.’

‘Did you like him?’

Shrug again. ‘He was there.’

I know Holly’s da, a bit. Frank Mackey, Undercover. You go at him straight, he’ll dodge and come in sideways; you go at him sideways, he’ll charge head down. I said, ‘You came here because there’s something you want me to know. I’m not going to play guessing games I can’t win. If you’re not sure you want to tell me, then go away and have a think till you are. If you’re sure now, then spit it out.’

Holly approved of that. Almost smiled again; nodded instead.

‘There’s this board,’ she said. ‘In school. A noticeboard. It’s on the top floor, across from the art room. It’s called the Secret Place. If you’ve got a secret, like if you hate your parents or you like a guy or whatever, you can put it on a card and stick it up there.’

No point asking why anyone would want to. Teenage girls: you’ll never understand.

‘Yesterday evening, me and my friends were up in the art room – we’re working on this project. I forgot my phone up there when we left, but I didn’t notice till lights-out, so I couldn’t get it then. I went up for it first thing this morning, before breakfast.’

Coming out way too pat; not a pause or a blink, not a stumble. Another girl, I’d’ve called bullshit. But Holly had practice, and she had her da; for all I knew, he took a statement every time she was late home.

‘I had a look at the board,’ Holly said. Bent to her schoolbag, flipped it open. ‘Just on my way past.’

And there it was: the hand hesitating above the green folder. The extra second when she kept her face turned down to the bag, away from me, ponytail tumbling to hide her. Not ice-cream-cool and smooth right through, after all.

Then she straightened and met my eyes again, blank-faced. Her hand came up, held out the green folder. Let go as soon as I touched it, so quick I almost let it fall.

‘This was on the board.’

The folder said ‘Holly Mackey, 4L, Social Awareness Studies’, scribbled over. Inside: clear plastic envelope. Inside that: a thumbtack, fallen down into one corner, and a piece of card.

I recognised the face faster than I’d recognised Holly’s. He had spent weeks on every front page and every TV screen, on every department bulletin.

This was a different shot. Caught turning over his shoulder against a blur of spring-green leaves, mouth opening in a laugh. Good-looking. Glossy brown hair, brushed forward boyband-style to thick dark eyebrows that sloped down at the outsides, gave him a puppydog look. Clear skin, rosy cheeks; a few freckles along the cheekbones, not a lot. A jaw that would’ve turned out strong, if there’d been time. Wide grin that crinkled his eyes and nose. A little bit cocky, a little bit sweet. Young, everything that rises green in your mind when you hear the word young. Summer romance, baby brother’s hero, cannon-fodder.

Glued below his face, across his blue T-shirt: words cut out of a book, spaced wide like a ransom note. Neat edges, snipped close.

I know who killed him

Holly watching me, silent.

Reader's Guide

1. What part of the author’s portrayal of adolescence rang the truest with your own experience? Of all the teenagers in the novel, which reminded you most of yourself at the age?

2. Who did you first suspect killed Chris Harper? Who did you think wrote the note? Why?

3. Detective Mackey’s sharp eye for human behavior is matched only by his determination to protect Holly. He warns Conway that Moran is ambitious, even to the point of disloyalty. Is this true?

4. Similarly, Mackey explains to Moran why Conway is so disliked by the Murder Squad. Do you believe his reasoning or is he trying to play on Moran’s fears? If you were Conway, how would you have reacted to the other detectives’ behavior?

5. There are episodes of the supernatural throughout the novel. Do you believe that Holly and her friends had magical powers? Did the students actually see Chris’s ghost? What was the dark shape that Moran noticed through the doorway?

6. The title refers to the St. Kilda’s board where the girls post their secrets, but in what other ways could it be interpreted?

7. The book’s chapters alternate between Moran and Conway’s experience solving the crime and the events leading up to the crime itself. How did this double narrative heighten your experience as a reader?

8. Moran admits, “I love beautiful; always have. I never saw why I should hate what I wish I had” (p. 31). What does he mean? Does this affect his work on the case?

9. French presents the relationship between Selena and Chris so that any of her friends’ differing perspectives on his feelings are plausible. What do Selena, Julia, Holly, and Becca each believe? Who do you agree with?

10. Would Chris Harper’s murder case have been handled differently if it had occurred in a poor Dublin neighborhood?

11. French writes that “when Holly thinks about it a long time afterwards, when things are starting to stay fixed and come into focus at last, she will think that probably there are ways you could say Marcus Wiley killed Chris Harper” (p. 95). What does she mean?

Q & A

Do you remember where and when you received the inspiration to write The Secret Place?

Someone—I wish I could remember who—told me about a website called PostSecret. It’s a wonderful site: people create postcards revealing secrets they want to share anonymously and send them to the site owner, who puts them up on the website. The postcards are beautiful, moving, disturbing, raw, funny . . . What struck me about the site is that it taps into twin contradictory needs that are right at the heart of human nature: we all want to keep our secrets, but we all want to reveal them, too. We want to be deeply known and understood, but we also want to hold our secrets inviolate. That site lets people do both at once.

So I started thinking about adolescence, which I think is when those twin needs are most intense, and what a place like that could mean to teenagers. And, because I write crime and I pretty much have to kill someone off, I started to think about what would happen if a teenager used a place like that website to reveal what he or she knew about a murder . . .

The Secret Place is an encore appearance for Frank Mackey and his teenaged daughter, Holly.  What do you find compelling about these two and what made you want to revisit them?

Holly was a lot of fun to write about in Faithful Place. She’s feisty, strong-willed, loving, smart, and devious, which makes for interesting possibilities. So when I started thinking about writing about teenagers, it occurred to me that Holly, who was nine in Faithful Place, would be sixteen now—and that if she were to find a card that claimed someone had information about a murder, she’d probably bring it to Detective Stephen Moran, since she knows him from the events of Faithful Place. And it also occurred to me that Holly’s attitude to murder—especially a murder that had a huge impact on her closest friends—might be a bit more complicated than most people’s . . .

St. Kilda’s sounds like a real place.  Did you go to a private girls’ school, or is this how you imagine it would be?

I think adolescence is, at heart, the same place no matter where you go to school, and no matter whether you’re a girl or a boy. It’s a strange, supercharged, liminal zone where reality’s borderlines aren’t as fixed as they are for adults: they can shift and slide, as they do for Holly and her friends; reality is defined by the interplay between you and your closest friends, rather than by anything outside that circle. And everything is crucially important, because you’re desperately trying to figure out, not only who you are, but who you’re going to allow to define that. Are you going to be the person that adults are telling you to be, the person your peers are telling you to be, or the person you feel you are? In order to find your feet in this world, you need to find a balance between all of those—and if you get that balance wrong, the way some of the characters do here, then things can go badly wrong.

I set the book in a small, private, single-sex school because it intensifies that atmosphere: it’s isolated from the outside world, so it heightens the feeling that only your private world is real, and that everything that happens in that world is immense and crucial. That way of thinking is seductive, but it’s also dangerous.

Texting plays a large part in The Secret Place.  How did you become so adept at getting inside the mind of millennial teenaged girls and wrap your head around their thought process and the lingo?
 
I eavesdropped! I don’t know any teenagers, and I knew that, although the intensity and the central concerns of that age are always going to be the same, the ways they’re expressed change over time—my generation’s slang was different, we didn’t have mobile phones or social media . . . So I spent a lot of time lurking on teenagers’ Internet forums and Facebook accounts, and a lot of time hanging out at bus stops and on train platforms when school had just let out. Probably I looked like a total weirdo, staring into space as I edged closer to groups of girls, but I bet they never even noticed I existed. When you’re inside that bubble, the outside world doesn’t count.

 

The administration at St. Kilda’s is trying to hold off the Internet by creating the “Secret Place,” a bulletin board in a hallway where students can post messages, photos, and artwork. Do you think this could possibly succeed in the real high school?  Or is this wishful thinking?
 
St. Kilda’s is a very controlled place, and teenagers are wild creatures who instinctively fight against being controlled. The Secret Place is meant to be a safety valve, a place where the girls can burn off a little of that wild energy in a safe, supervised way; it’s meant to hold off not just the Internet but all the passion and fury and longing of being that age. I think strategies like that can succeed in the short term—but they’re trying to suppress a force of nature, and in the long term, something’s going to give. That’s what happens in the book: that force boils up under all the neat control mechanisms, and finally it blows the lid right off them.

Antoinette Conway is a wonderful character.  Her interplay with Stephen Moran—non-verbal, instinctive—is great character work.  Do you think if the Dublin Murder squad really existed, it would be so anti-woman, and anti-this-woman?

I don’t think Conway’s real problem with the Murder squad is that she’s a woman. I think it’s that she’s still struggling with the same question that dogs the teenagers and Stephen: who gets to define you? Some people will always try to define others, by force if necessary, especially when those others are some kind of threat. One of the dynamics where that can happen is men trying to define women according to their own needs—but it’s far from the only one in real life, and it’s far from the only one in the book. Conway refuses to budge an inch to adapt to the Murder squad; she’s like a teenager refusing to conform to peer pressure, and the squad—which is a tight-knit, isolated world not that different from St. Kilda’s—reacts with the same ferocity as a group of teenagers would.

What is it that makes Antoinette and Stephen work so well together?  Is it their ambition?  Or is it that they both come from the same social class?

They do have those things in common—they’re both inner-city Dubliners in a job where most people come from solid rural backgrounds; and they’re both fiercely ambitious, although they go about achieving their ambition in very different ways. But what makes them work well together is their differences, more than their similarities. Stephen is a people-pleaser, to the point where he starts to lose hold of any sense of himself; Antoinette is the opposite, to the point where she shoots herself in the foot. Each of them is what the other needs—although definitely not what the other wants—and over the course of the book they start to come to terms with that.

Do you always know at the onset who the killer is?  Or, is it more of an evolutionary process as you write?

I haven’t got a clue! When I start working on a book, I usually have a narrator, a core premise, and a core location in my head; everything else, I figure out as I go. I have to get to know the characters a bit, by writing them, before I can figure out which of them would do what and why.

What are you working on next? Will you be revisiting characters from previous novels and, if so, which ones?

Stephen and Antoinette are back, but this time Antoinette’s the narrator, and her tense relationship with the rest of the Murder squad is starting to break her down. She and Stephen pick up a case that looks like a routine domestic murder—but they start to realize that someone inside the squad isn’t on their side . . .

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