The Secret Place is the fourth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Each book in the series involves a police investigation of a crime, but the storyline sits atop a larger portrait of a changing Irish context (e.g. transportation and sprawl; suburbanization; class conflict, etc.).
The Secret Place involves a year-old murder at boarding school for girls. A boy was found murdered on the grounds (whacked to death with a garden tool). The case remains unsolved until a new piece of evidence surfaces, and a pair of detectives return to the scene of the crime to get to the bottom of it.
Ultimately, this is a story about loyalty and alliances. There are alliances between girls, and there are alliances between detectives. And underneath it all, there is a worm of a theme about alliances among social classes (the boarding school is a bastion of privilege; but there is a separation between day and boarding students; between affluent and less affluent students; between the detectives (less affluent) and everyone at the school…etc.)
I hate to say this, but this one is my least favorite book of the series. There are two big reasons. The first is that the whole Mean Girls aspect of the novel is overdone. The girls are too clichéd, too mean, too excessively and unrealistically teenagery (The dialogue! Gah!). Also, this dark portrayal of girls’ culture has been done better elsewhere (I’m thinking Abbott’s Dare Me and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, off the top of my head), so it felt like a re-tread here.
The second reason this was my least favorite of the series was that I thought it was less of a “literary suspense” novel and more of an Agatha Christie-type mystery (Who killed the butler with a candlestick?). All of the suspects are corralled in a large room and interviewed one-by-one as lights flicker and a crabby schoolmarm scowls. This made the book seem like Ice Milk from the 1980s – do you remember this? It was a low-fat alternative to ice cream. It looked like ice cream, and you ate it for dessert. But it WASN’T ice cream – it was thinner, runnier, and less satisfying. Ultimately, I was looking for something richer than what I found in this novel.
This gets me to a larger question/issue: What makes something a “literary mystery” or a “literary thriller?” One of the reasons the author has such a following is the “literary” label. So what do you think, readers? What are the characteristics “literary” suspense?