The Wednesday Review: Tana French’s THE SECRET PLACE

Do you remember when you were young, when your friends were your life and nothing could separate you, when there was only now and college was light years away?

Do you remember sharing everything…except that one small thing, that one piece you wanted to keep for yourself?

In Tana French’s latest, The Secret Place, Holly Mackey walks into the station with a card for Detective Stephan Moren. It’s a picture of Christopher Harper, a boy who died the year before, and a message that reads I know who killed him.

A year after Chris’ death, the trail’s gone cold. Stephen’s eager to get a boot up to Murder from the Cold Case unit, and this card is his ticket out. He’s even willing to work with Antoinette Conway, a woman out to prove she’s better than any man for the job. But untangling the lies from the half-truths is a mountain of a challenge – especially when you’re working against a clock.

The Secret Place is a bit of a departure from French’s previous works. After the events of Broken Harbor, we couldn’t move on to Richie’s story. We first met Stephen in Faithful Place, when Frank Mackey was trying to unravel the disappearance of his first love, Rose. Stephen does his best to get along with everyone, trying not to rock the boat, trying not to get too buddy-buddy with his workmates. He’s ambitious, is Stephen, and if he’d wanted to make friends on the force he’d have done so during training and ended up wearing a uniform and walking the streets for his entire career. Not good enough for a man out of the council flats.

Throughout these books we’ve seen a lot of things: Rob’s self-destruction, Cassie’s denial, Frank’s determination, Scorcher’s rigid control. For Stephen, it’s loneliness. His choices have left him in a bubble, one he can’t quite figure out how to penetrate without giving up what he wants most – a shot at the Murder Squad. So he plies his affable act at every chance, hiding away his longing for that perfect partner. If he’d seen the spectacular implosion of Rob and Cassie’s partnership, he might think differently. (And years later, it still makes me ache, watching Rob destroy his life.)

But The Secret Place isn’t just Stephen’s story. It’s about those relationships that are closer than any blood tie, where you swear there are no secrets between you and yet you crave one thing for yourself, so when the opportunity arises, you grasp it with both hands.

It’s a story of friendship and lies, how assumptions can tear apart everything that matters – and how one boy can drive a wedge into even the strongest of friendships.

It is, ultimately, a story of love, and the lengths we’ll go to protect it.

We move back and forth between the day Holly brings the card to Stephen and the school year leading up to Chris’ death. From Julia’s growing reputation to Becca’s timidity to Serena’s ultimate break from reality to Holly’s attempts to make everything okay if she just pretends nothing’s wrong, each is desperate to hold onto what they’ve got, and by any means necessary. By the end, there’s something so irrevocably broken between the four of them, yet they’re glued together, pretending the cracks aren’t showing.

It’s not a perfect story. French’s teenspeak is annoying more often than not. It’s all totes amazeballs and OMG ews, and there are times when Joanne, the leader of a rival clique, comes off as such a caricature of a mean girl you want to groan. It’s worth it, though, to watch as Stephen and Antoinette patiently pull each tiny strand of information from these girls, weaving together the story of what happened to Chris on that night in May a year ago.

It’s worth it, because when it’s over, you think maybe Stephen may have finally gotten what he’s wanted for so long.

Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for review. The Secret Place releases September 2, 2014.

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