Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Secret Place

Viking: The Secret Place by Tana French

Viking: The Secret Place by Tana French

Viking: The Secret Place by Tana French

Viking: The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place

by Tana French

The Dublin Murder Squad series has won Tana French (Broken Harbor) critical acclaim and the hearts of fans worldwide. Tightly woven plots driven by flawed heroes and deadly criminals have readers gobbling up each story and eagerly awaiting the next. In this latest walk on the dark side, French shows she is at the height of her narrative powers as she delves into the raw and shaky world of adolescence, the dangers inherent in friendships true and false, and the truth's ability to worm itself free from layers of secrets and rumor.

Since his turn as Frank Mackey's sidekick in The Faithful Place, Detective Stephen Moran has been biding his time working in Cold Cases but hoping to get his foot in the door with the Murder Squad. "Murder is the thoroughbred stable. Murder is a shine and a dazzle.... Murder is a brand on your arm, like an elite army unit's, like a gladiator's, saying for all your life: One of us. The finest." He gets his lucky break in the form of Mackey's daughter, Holly. As a little girl, Holly was a witness in a murder trial. Now a teenager attending the prestigious girls' boarding school St. Kilda's, she's barely recognizable to Moran when she ditches school and shows up at the station. In her hands is a postcard with the words "I know who killed him" glued across a picture of Chris Harper, a popular, handsome student from the neighboring boys' school who was found dead on the campus of St. Kilda's months ago.

Moran uses the card and his rapport with Holly to bargain himself into the investigation alongside Detective Antoinette Conway, an ambitious officer two years Moran's junior. With a mind as sharp and bright as steel, Conway has thrived in the midst of barely concealed sexism and suspicion from the predominantly male police force through focus, talent and force of will. Just as Moran never pictured his ideal partner as a tough-as-nails inner-city Dubliner--he'd prefer someone with a posh accent who raises Irish Setters and plays the violin--Conway has little use for Moran, who retains his awe at the rarefied air of St. Kilda's even after he learns its other side, who "still couldn't picture bad things here: someone being bitch-whipped out of a conversation into one of those corners, someone snug in one of the sofas longing to cut herself." Unexpectedly, the pair find themselves quickly bonding, Moran's universal likability and optimism making him the perfect good cop to Conway's cynical, bullish bad cop. As they face down a tight-lipped headmistress, a bevy of teen girls who may as well have "razor blades in their hair," and a ticking clock before they're shoved off the school grounds, Moran and Conway must learn to trust each other if they're going to catch a killer.

On the other side of the interrogation table sit eight teenage girls, two cliques of four. One clique, nicknamed the Daleks and headed by a poisonous queen bee named Joanna, embody the putdowns, shaming and fear-mongering associated with the worst side of adolescence. The other, made up of Holly and her friends Selena, Becca and Julia, are the other side of the coin, a solid wall of sisterhood and loyalty, "the something else I'd been looking for. Burning hotter, throwing off sparks in strange colors," Moran thinks. In chapters that alternate with Moran and Conway's investigation, readers come to know Holly and her mates well as they live out the months between the beginning of the previous school year and Chris Harper's murder. Sarcastic Julia, daydreamer Selena, brainy but shy Becca and clever Holly complement each others' personalities perfectly, and the support and approval they derive from one another allow them to flout the power dynamics and popularity games that dominate the lives of their classmates. For a while, their insular world is an Eden, but "in a grassy and moonless silence between two secrets," a blend of misunderstandings, jealousy and the venomous machinations of Joanna and company exact a heavy price for their idyll. Out of eight girls, only one knows the truth behind Chris Harper's murder, and readers will change their minds about the culprit again and again until all is revealed.

French nails the mindset of adolescence in a way that will leave readers with little nostalgia for their teenage years: the desperation to fit in without knowing how, the dangerous new worlds of sex and drugs, the sudden transition of adults from caretakers to enemies of freedom. At the same time, she acknowledges that life as a grown-up isn't without its bullies and popularity contests. Conway faces sexism at work, while Moran is still seen by some as Mackey's lapdog, and both of them see St. Kilda's as representative of a world they cannot touch. French expertly lays bare the striations of age, class and gender that keep people apart while making them need each other more. With carefully crafted characters and motives, French not only makes a boarding school murder seem plausible, she makes the reader wonder how teenagers could ever live in such close quarters without doing each other grievous bodily harm. Even those who truly believe in the innocence of adolescence will turn the final page sure of Moran's lesson: " 'If I've learned one thing today, it's that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods.' " --Jaclyn Fulwood

Viking, $27.95, hardcover, 9780670026326, September 2, 2014

Viking: The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French: The Ferocity of Adolescence

photo: Kyran O'Brien

Tana French grew up in Ireland, the U.S., Italy and Malawi. She trained as an actress at Trinity College Dublin and has worked in theatre, film and voiceover. She is the author of In the Woods (2007), The Likeness (2008) and Faithful Place (2010). Her books have been finalists for the L.A. Times and Strand magazine awards, and won Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Barry and ICVA Clarion awards. French lives in Dublin with her husband and daughter. Recently, she sat down to talk with us about The Secret Place, adolescence and the transformative power of friendship.

What inspired The Secret Place and the Secret Place--the St. Kilda's bulletin board where the postcard is found?

Both of them came from the same place. Someone told me about a website called PostSecret. It's a great site: people create anonymous postcards revealing their secrets, and send them to the site owner, who puts them up on the website. The postcards are beautiful, sad, disturbing, raw, funny, sometimes all of those at once. What I think makes the site so powerful is that it taps into a two-way pull that's right at the heart of human nature: we want to keep our secrets, but we want to reveal them, too. We want to be deeply known, but we also want to hold our secrets inviolate. That site lets people do both at once.

So I started thinking about adolescence, which I think is when that two-way pull is most intense, and about the complex ways in which teenagers might use a place like that. And then--because I write crime, so my ideas tend to head in the direction of dead bodies--I started to think about what would happen if a teenager used a place like that website to reveal what he or she knew about a murder....

How did you get into the teen girl mindset while writing? Was it difficult to shift from the viewpoint of teens looking out at adults to the viewpoint of adults looking out at teens?

Once you start thinking back to what it was like to be a teenager, it's amazing how easy it is to find your way into that mindset. The bit that gets blurred over the years is the sheer ferocity of teenagerhood, the way every single thing plays out at top intensity and all the dials go to eleven and stay there. Once you get a handhold on that feeling, it's easy to find your way to the rest.

What was difficult was drawing the distinction between the way the girls see adults before Chris's death, when they're 15, and the way they see them a year later. Before Chris's death, as far as the girls are concerned, adults aren't really people; they're just incomprehensible annoyances that you have to negotiate around in order to do all the real, interesting stuff in life. But the events around Chris's death change all of them. By the next year, they're not little girls anymore; they're on their way to adulthood--an adulthood shaped by that experience. And they see adults in that new light. That was the hard part: capturing that subtle shift, and the different ways it would come through in the different girls.

How did you balance creating strong young women with the vulnerability of adolescence?

In adolescence, in particular, I think those two qualities--strength and vulnerability--are inextricably intertwined: every step you take towards an adult form of strength makes you immensely vulnerable, because you're in brand-new territory. And for each of the four main girls, that link is intensified because the moment when she has to woman up and do something that takes a new kind of strength is also the moment when she has to step away from her three best friends. This four-way friendship has become all of their armour against all the dangers of the world--and right at the moment when they want it most, they have to step out of its shelter. That's an essential part of growing up, but it's also very frightening and in some ways an immense loss--because once you've done it, you can never quite go back. The story spins around the moments when, for each of the four girls, that intersection of strength and vulnerability is at its most intense.

Tell us how you developed the different friendships we see in The Secret Place.

Great friendships--like every great love--are transformative. More than that: they're creative; they grow elements of us that we never knew were there, grow us into who we'll be forever after. Generally that's a marvellous thing, but every now and then--as with at least one of the girls in this book--it can tap into something powerful and dark that would probably have been better left untouched.

The friendship between Holly and her gang is the kind of friendship you only really have in adolescence: the kind that makes the rest of the world vanish. As well as creating each other, the four of them are also creating their reality; their own private bubble is far more real to them than the outside world--and that brings its dangers. For adults like Conway and Moran, friendship is a different thing. They don't come to each other expecting the other one to cancel out the rest of the world; they come to friendship expecting that it's something that will face outwards as well as inwards, that will involve dealing with the real world as well as with each other.

But the two sets of friendships have that transformative power in common. Moran and Conway, like the four girls, do end up redefining each other, nudging each other to become something new. Moran, in particular, is very aware of that potential, and it's the main reason he starts out resisting the idea of anything like a friendship with Conway: she's not someone he wants to allow to define him; she doesn't fit with his image of who he wants to become. By the end of the book, though--and at least partly because of what he's seen of the girls' friendships--that's shifted.

What made you decide this story was right for Stephen Moran as a character?

I'd been wanting to use Stephen Moran as a narrator ever since Faithful Place, where he was a supporting character. He wasn't right for the next book, Broken Harbor--it's a book about people who do their best to follow the rules, and what happens when the rules betray them, and that isn't what Stephen's about. The crucial thing about Stephen, in Faithful Place, is that he does what the narrator wants him to, even though he thinks it might well be ethically wrong. He does it partly because he's susceptible to pressure from outside, and partly because he's very ambitious and thinks this will help him get where he's aiming. Even though he's an adult, he's not 100% clear on who he is--and so he's easily swayed by how he wants other people to see him, and by thoughts of who he might become. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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