The Secret Place

Tana French



This year, everyone gets ready for the Court like they’re getting ready for the Oscars….You like so totally have to have your hair either straightened to death or else brushed into a careful tangle, and fake tan all over and an inch of foundation on your face and half a pack of smoky eye shadow around each eye, and super-soft-super-skinny jeans and Uggs or Converse, because otherwise someone might actually be able to tell you apart from everyone else and obviously that would make you a total loser.

                               from  The Secret Place


What's the fun of having secrets if you can't share them?

Girls like to reveal their secrets, and they like to be secretive, says the headmistress of the posh private girls school in Dublin. In the school there is a board, called the Secret Place, where the girls are permitted to post their secrets anonymously—concerns about their weight, fear of not being liked, a new romance, etc.

A year ago, a popular and handsome 16-year old boy named Chris Harper was found murdered on the grounds of the school. No clues or motives could be found and the case has remained unsolved.

And then a card shows up on the Secrets board: his photo, with cut-out letters pasted under it: I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran, ambitious and eager to advance out of Cold Cases, pairs up with the Murder Department’s abrasive Antoinette Conway, a kind of human scouring pad. Together, they explore the secret society of teenage girls who come from a world of privilege, with all the perks, pride, and insensitivity that privilege bestows.

Like most crime mysteries, this is not a book that gives one much faith in humanity. The girls we meet are tempting, taunting, devious and calculating in their meanness. (“Joanne has always been the kind of person who doesn’t even have to hate you to be horrible to you.”) And one of them may be capable of murder.

By comparison, the savagery of the boys in Lord of the Flies seems refreshingly direct—At least you know your friends from your enemies.

Tana French won The Los Angeles Times’ Best Mystery/Thriller Prize for her Broken Harbor. She has a sharp, often witty style capturing different points of view, whether the snide attitude of the girls toward one of their less bright friends (“Her head is obviously spinning so hard she can’t think, even by her standards.”) or in Moran’s brisk procedural description of Chris Harper from the photograph: …a puppy dog 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 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.

In contrast, the boys in the story are pretty clueless, no match for the girls’ strategic use of sweetness, sexiness, and cruelty—they’re clearly playing checkers while the girls are playing chess; not only different rules, but completely different games.

Who knew teenage girls could be so vicious? Given a choice, I think I’d prefer taking my chances on an island with a bunch of savage boys.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.