Los Angeles Review of Books

IRISH WRITER TANA FRENCH has invented a type of domestic terrorism all her own. In her five novels, narrated by members of the Dublin police force, families are laid waste, friendships shattered, and love affairs quashed. No one and no place is safe from the reality of violence, from the intimacy of murder: in French’s world, victims, in the words of Detective Scorcher Kennedy, “[go] looking for exactly what they got.” Yet in each book, starting with In the Woods (2007) and continuing through The Likeness (2008), Faithful Place (2010), Broken Harbor (2012), and, now, The Secret Place, there is an element of accident for every killer’s manipulative maneuver, and a desperate war is waged between passion and rationality. It is up to the detectives, and each book is narrated by a different one — Rob Ryan in Woods, Cassie Maddox in Likeness, Frank Mackey in Faithful, Scorcher Kennedy in Harbor, and Stephen Moran in The Secret Place — to disentangle the most horrific crimes in the State of Ireland. At the crux of each of these murders is the disintegration of a family, and the slipperiness of distinguishing the killer from the average person. Inside us all, French believes, there lurks someone capable of murder, a person who loves someone or something so desperately that killing can seem the only option. These are murder books, then, but they are also philosophical inquiries into who and how we are: the complexities of human nature figure in French’s books to an extent beyond what most novelists could manage, let alone what most crime writers are capable of handling. If the devil is indeed in the details, French is positively satanic.

The specificity of French’s work is irrevocably tied to the recent history of Ireland, the economic rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger and the havoc that wave wreaked in a small country where poverty was a given but crime a rarity. Her detectives, all of whom came of age in the 1980s, remember a Dublin as safe as houses, but they now police one as violent and nasty as any other contemporary city. As Detective Cassie Maddox puts it:

We’ve never had the orgies of nightmare that other countries get: the serial killers, the ornate tortures, the basements lined with bodies thick as autumn leaves. But it’s only a  matter of time, now. For ten years Dublin’s been changing faster than our minds can  handle. The economic boom has given us too many people with helicopters and too many crushed into cockroachy flats from hell, way too many loathing their lives in fluorescent cubicles, enduring for the weekend and then starting all over again, and we’re fracturing under the weight of it.

Each of French’s books takes up the wonders and horrors of development in some way. An archeological dig in the path of a proposed new highway provides the dumping ground for a girl’s body in In the Woods. The motive behind the murder in The Likeness is directly connected to a mansion one of the characters has inherited. In Faithful Place, Frank Mackey is dragged back to his impoverished Dublin neighborhood by the discovery of his former girlfriend’s corpse in a long-abandoned house slated for demolition and gentrification. And, most significantly, in Broken Harbor, a half-built housing estate forms the spooky backdrop for the murder of a family who only wanted their rightful place on the property ladder — a phrase that recurs in the novels with a sliding scale of scorn and doom.

Place is of utmost importance for French, and with the exception of The Likeness all of the titles refer to the settings: the woods in In the Woods, the abandoned house on Faithful Place, the hideout of a stalker in the Broken Harbor estate. Like the famine cabin in The Likeness, all contain horrific secrets and have almost totemic powers as sites of escape. They symbolize the insufficiency of mere shelters to stop the intrusion of the worst of humanity.

The Secret Place is a room in a fancy girls’ school called St. Kilda’s, which is the school Frank Mackey’s 16-year-old daughter, Holly, attends. The St. Kilda’s girls are encouraged to post cards with their secrets on the board in this room set aside for the unspeakable. The headmistress created it to keep the girls from bullying each other on the internet, and is pleased with her innovation, she says:

The students actually enjoy the complications of the real-world process: the need to wait for a moment when no one can see them pin up a card, to find an excuse to visit the third floor without being noticed. Girls like to reveal their secrets, and they like to be secretive. The board provides the perfect balance.

Yet when Holly finds a picture of a boy murdered a year before, with the promise (or the threat) that the poster knows who killed him, the balance at the school is lost. Holly brings the card to Detective Stephen Moran, whom she knows from the events of Faithful Place — her father used him to spy on his longtime rival’s movements in that book. Thus the investigation into the murder is reopened, and Moran and his partner, Detective Antoinette Conway (who was the original investigator), are sent to St. Kilda’s with the unenviable task of trying to suss out the secrets of teenage girls, one of whom is a killer.

The Secret Place is the most claustrophobic of French’s books. We hear less about Ireland, property, and police politics and a lot about the internecine wars between teenage cliques. There is no one more trusting or more in need of trust than a teenage girl, and while French’s other books all centered on murdered children or young people, in this one she delves into the slippery psychology of girls with gusto. Girls and secrets are not only connected, they are synonymous. Holly and her mates — Selena, Rebecca, and Julia — are keeping as much from each other as they are sharing. There are secret phones with secret texts; secret keys that lead to secret trysts; and just plain secrets, information one girl is hiding from one or all of the others. Despite their shared room and their remoteness within the walls of St. Kilda’s, these friends are both family and strangers to each other. This, too, is a commonplace in French’s work: no one knows us less than our families, so surrogates must be sought out in order to have any sense of place in the world, whether it’s the fraternity of cops or the chosen company of friends. This is most pronounced in The Likeness, where a group of grad students (whom an undercover Maddox infiltrates) have built their own world within a house one of them inherited and then deeded to all five. Their intimacy is based on an ironclad rule: No pasts can be discussed. Their lives consist only of what has transpired since they met at university. With Holly and her friends, as teenagers, the past is limited, but they are equally alienated from their families and their pasts. Their whole world is their friends, and the secrets they are keeping. Holly and her cohorts are not innocents, but these young women are not femmes fatales, either, despite their nascent experiments in seduction.

One of the questions at the heart of this book, and essential to French’s other books as well, is: How do we become adults? Is it through abandoning our birth families and childhood traumas, or at least finding a healthy separation from them? Or is there some more critical work that needs to be done? French doesn’t provide easy answers to this question: Frank Mackey has escaped Faithful Place and his family when the discovery of the murdered body of his first love drags him back. Mackey asks himself, as if to prove his bona fides as a grown-up and a cop, what he would die for:

I would die for, in no particular order, my city, my job, and my kid. The kid is well behaved so far, the city is Dublin, and the job is on the Undercover Squad, so it may sound obvious which one I’m most likely to wind up dying for, but it’s been a while since work handed me anything scarier than a paperwork megaturd.

Unlike Mackey, however, Scorcher Kennedy remains hopelessly enmeshed in his family, especially the life of his mentally unstable sister, Dina. His maturity is vested in being the straightest, toughest cop in the Murder Squad: a role the case at Broken Harbor smashes into shards. No matter how much French’s cops (and other characters) protest, the only thing worth living and dying for is family, however you define it. That realization is what makes us adults in the end.

French missteps, though, when she invites Frank Mackey into Secret Place. Either because of his charisma or our familiarity with his character, he undermines Stephen Moran’s authority as both cop and narrator. Moran recedes with Mackey back in town, and, besides being abrasive, his partner, Conway, never emerges as a fully formed character. Thus the best dialogue in the second half of the book is mostly between Mackey and Moran. Mackey is at St. Kilda’s because Moran and Conway are interviewing Holly, but as a cop’s kid and a smart one at that, she’s not much of a talker. The most interesting fact Moran gets Mackey to reveal is why a class-conscious cop like him would send Holly to a school like St. Kilda’s. Mackey tells him that Holly started out as a day student, but then became “a raging pain in the hole […] [t]railing round the house like something out of an Italian opera” every time she came home. Since Frank and his wife, Olivia, had recently reconciled after a divorce, they decided to give in to Holly and let her board there with her friends. His desire, in part, was to provide her with a stable family of friends after the shaky marriage and the tentacles of his abusive birth family.

We find out at the end — murder solved, friendships fraught — that Holly’s mother, Olivia, went to Kilda’s too. She returns home to her husband and daughter after meeting one of her long-lost school friends and shows Holly a picture: her clique, just as close as Holly, Rebecca, Selena, and Julia. It’s the first time Holly sees Olivia as a person, not just as her mother; she thinks about how she and her friends might grow up and apart, might not be this close forever. Holly is becoming an adult in other ways, too: she’s learning to give up the things she loves, redefining herself and her family. She tells Frank she wants to be a lawyer, but smart money says she’ll end up a cop. Someday, she’ll make a great narrator of a Tana French book.

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Lisa Levy is a writer and LARB‘s noir editor.