The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5), by Tana French

Eight stars

Tana French finds new ways to dazzle and impress me with the fifth Dublin Murder Squad novel. Readers familiar with Faithful Place will remember Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey, and Dublin Police floater Stephen Moran. Seven years later, Moran is now working on Cold Cases and receives an unlikely visit from Holly, who is now sixteen and enrolled at St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school. Holly explains that the school has a wall where students can post anonymous comments about their lives without repercussions, called The Secret Place. Holly has come to Moran with one of the cards she found pinned to the wall, a photo of a young man from the nearby all-boys school who was murdered a year ago. On the back of this card, a message indicating that the card’s creator has information about the murder. Moran takes this and approached the case’s Murder Squad lead, Detective Antoinette Conway, in hopes of joining the investigation. Conway is leery, but agrees after Moran argues his rapport with Holly might be an asset. Trying to make headway, Conway and Moran encounter a clic of girls at the school, all of whom have sentiments about the victim, Chris Harper. This group of teenaged girls would make a murder of crows seem angelic, as they protect one another in one breath and roast the weakest links in the next. Holly is firmly rooted in one of these groups and the investigation shows how Harper used a number of these girls, emotionally and physically, before discarding them and moving onto the next conquest. The reader is given added insight through French’s use of a flashback narrative in numerous chapters, which fills in major gaps that Moran and Conway are not able to acquire. While it appears Harper sought to play the girls for his own benefit, which girl is ultimately responsible for his demise is not clear, nor is the witness who posted to The Secret Place. Perhaps the most challenging Squad case yet presented to readers, French does a brilliant job in drawing out the story and then showing how the murderer came to slay young Chris Harper. Fans of the series and new readers alike will find much to enjoy in his book.

As absorbing as these books have become, I sometimes find myself wondering when the other shoe will drop. Will French run out of ideas and have to replicate a plot or premise? I have yet to find that concern and her continued variety has me feeling constantly refreshed. Somewhat of a thriller and police procedural nut, I have been around the block and French stands leaps and bounds ahead of many other authors in the genre. Her constant rotation of protagonists proved even more effective here, as she broke the pattern of finding a minor character from the previous book and looked two novels earlier. She also chose to incorporate three past characters in the story, which forces series fans to remember the nuances that both Mackeys and Moran brought to the aforementioned third book in the series. The cast of school girls was also a significant feat and that it was done so well (and offered a variety of characters even within the group) speaks to French’s superior writing abilities. As with the past novels, I was able to extract a theme from the text, through the title. The ‘secret’ place has many meanings throughout the story, from the literal place that is used by the girls to air their private sentiments to the as yet unattainable Murder Squad job that Moran seeks. One might also find that these girls are seeking the secret place as a meeting spot to encounter Chris Harper or more metaphorically the ‘place’ in his heart. As the investigation proves intense and Frank Mackey makes an appearance, the reader might wonder if the ‘secret’ place could be thinking someone could be so dark as to travel down a path thought impossible before. However the reader chooses to interpret it, the dynamic between the girls, the police, and the overall mystery is formidable and should give the reader a high-impact mystery with the most unpredictable of characters. If it has not been clear up to this point of the review, or my sentiments in all books of the series, this is a must-read for anyone who has patience and interest in superior thriller novels.

Kudos, Madam French for proving how versatile you are and how the ideas seem never-ending. I am excited to get to the next novel, though it is a little sad that the binge is almost done.

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