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'The Secret Place' is certain to rank among the best mysteries of the year

A Dublin detective finds a group of teenage girls to be as mysterious as the murder case he must unravel.

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    The Secret Place,
    by Tana French,
    Viking,
    452 pp.

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Moods swing, hormones surge, words cut, and cliques strive to rip rivals apart. Reality comes and goes, swept along by rumors, whispers, daydreams, and shifting alliances. Secrets ripple to the surface, leading to storms of indignation, revenge, laughter, and humiliation, depending on perspective.

A perfect description of adolescence and, in plenty of instances, adults at work. Maybe even a murder squad of police detectives.

In her latest novel The Secret Place, Tana French mines these similarities, and the ever-elusive teenage mind, in a twisting, teasing, and tense murder mystery that, while impressive in the matter of whodunit, soars on the psychological insights of whydunit.

Adolescence terrifies those in its grasp and those scrambling to manage those in its grasp: parents and teachers, most often. At St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school in what French describes as the leafy suburbs of Dublin, the nuns who run the school are engaged in a campaign of futility, trying to stamp out everything from sex and texting to gossip and drinking.

To kill texting and gossip, school administrators install a bulletin board known as the Secret Place, a common area message center where girls can anonymously share their thoughts. And they ban smartphones and block social networking websites on school computers.

Every night, the sprawling school locks down. Students face expulsion for even roaming the grounds after hours, much less meeting some of their counterparts from the nearby all-male boarding school. So guess what happens? All of the above, of course.

But matters are much more complicated than mere flirting or even flirting with a bit of delinquency.

Holly Mackey, daughter of a Dublin detective, shares a bond – and at least some secrets – with her roommates at St. Kilda’s. For months, she and her crew, along with most of the older students, have been living under a shadow. Chris Harper, a handsome, popular boy from Colm’s, the male boarding school, was found murdered at St. Kilda’s the previous spring. The gruesome and unusual killing made headlines for a while, but the trail ran cold.

Now, though, 16-year-old Holly, who knows Detective Stephen Moran from a murder case that forced her to answer questions as a child nine years earlier, has a tantalizing clue that could re-start the investigation. She shows up unannounced in Moran’s Cold Case division offices, asks to speak in confidence with Moran and produces an anonymous note plucked from the Secret Place.

The note reads, “I know who killed him” and includes a photo of the victim.

Of the Secret Place, Moran thinks, “No point asking why anyone would want to (post their secrets and taunts on a bulletin board in public). Teenage girls: you’ll never understand. I’ve got sisters. I learned to just leave it.”

Moran takes the note to a tough outcast murder detective named Antoinette Conway, who handled the original investigation. Conway lets Moran tag along to St. Kilda’s for a series of follow-up interviews and that is when the pages begin to flutter past.

Eight girls – rival quartets – come under suspicion. Conway and Moran begin interviewing them, assembling clues and, as often as not, coming away more bewildered than before. United fronts crumble, secrets slip out, and everything grows murkier.

“This was giving me the head-staggers, keeping it straight who would do what to who if which,” Moran tells the reader in one of his many first-person chapters.

French alternates Moran’s memories of the case with omniscient passages telling how Harper, who swings from cruelty to kindness without warning, unintentionally exacerbates a series of misunderstandings and misperceptions, with fatal results.

Moran fares better with the sulky, clever, and rebellious girls than Conway, whose gruff manner often proves off-putting. Filled with ambition, Moran and Conway are opposites: one too needy to be liked, the other too brusque to connect with witnesses and suspects.

Far be it from this middle-aged male reader to presume the ways of teen girls, but French’s descriptions and slang ring with authenticity.

Holly Mackey is particularly interesting. She and her clique dismiss their snobbish rivals as Daleks (the mutant robots in the Doctor Who series). Holly is whip-smart and blunt. She tells the detectives, “Everyone thinks girls blab everything, yap yap yap, like idiots. That’s total crap. Girls keep secrets. Guys are the one who can’t keep their mouths shut.”

French, again and again, drills into the psyche of not just teenagers, but also the disconnected and antagonistic reality of how most adults and adolescents co-exist. And, most of all, how jumbled up it feels to be a teenager, the fever-dream frustration of trying to figure out how to grow up and hang on to a sliver of yourself while the relentless and infinite constraints of conformity creep closer.

“You forget what it was like,” French writes. “You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled bright enough to scald you, any second of any day could send you roaring or rip you to bloody shreds.”

“The Secret Place” rips you to shreds, too, but in all the right ways. While channeling teens and cops alike, Tana French has – OMG, like, totes, amazeball – written a novel that seems all but certain to be among the best mysteries of the year.

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