Tell me a story. Tell me a lie. Find me the truth. Tana French is a terrific storyteller, and in the fifth in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Secret Place (Viking Penguin, digital galley), the detectives looking for the truth about a murdered teen face a school full of accomplished liars. The teenage girls at posh St. Kilda’s lie to their parents, their teachers, the police, their classmates and even their closest friends. They withhold information. They embroider events. They revise history. They make things up. It’s a matter of self-preservation, because as good as they are at lying, they are even better at keeping secrets. But for how long?
More than a year after the body of Chris Harper, a popular student at a neighboring boys’ school, is found on the grounds of St. Kilda’s, someone anonymously posts a photograph of Chris on a confessional bulletin board with the caption, “I know who killed him.” Holly Mackey, the 16-year-old daughter of homicide detective Frank Mackey, surreptitiously takes the photo not to her da but to Stephen Moran, a cold case squad detective she met several years ago during an investigation. (Frank Mackey was the featured character in French’s third book Faithful Place, where Holly and Moran had secondary roles.)
Although the elder Mackey eventually makes a memorable entrance in The Secret Place, this story belongs to Moran and the original detective on the Harper case, the chip-on-her-shoulder Antoinette Conway, and to Holly and her classmates. French structures the book from the alternating perspectives of the girls in the months preceding and following Chris’s death and that of Moran, who narrates his and Conway’s 36-hour investigation at the school. Whether writing lyrically of past events or detailing the intimacy of the present, French is spot-on at capturing the volatility of teenage friendships and romances, the hothouse aura of hormones and peer pressure. She also captures the conflicted emotions of the detectives, battling their own insecurities. Who exactly is playing who?
Moran and Conway focus their attention on eight boarding students allied in two groups of four. Holly and her three friends are closer than sisters, sharing an almost mystical bond that makes them swear off boyfriends in favor of female empowerment. Their classmates find them weird, especially the four “Daleks” headed by mean girl Joanne. The tension between the two groups is palpable, especially after it emerges that Chris had romanced at least two girls among them, passing out burner cell phones for one-on-one communication. But the sweetness of first love is tinged by betrayal, then blotted by murder.
The Secret Place is long, complex and wonderfully immersive. It reads slowly in the beginning as the characters are sorted out, and the pace lags whenever the detectives must decipher the teens’ endless texts and annoying slang. But French’s an astute psychologist, maintaining suspense throughout as to the identity of the “Mystery Girl.” It’s no secret that I’ll read anything she writes.