Even though I cheated and read the novel in Swedish - a Swedish paperback was available for borrowing - I'm still a bit chuffed that I managed to make my way through all 500-plus pages of Tana French's The Secret Place in comparatively short time. It was, admittedly, not that difficult a read. The setting itself lends glamour - St Kilda's, a high-class Irish boarding school for girls.
As many Swedish book bloggers have testified, crime stories (or any stories, really) set in a school or university environment have a charm of their own which is hard to describe. (Swedish-speakers may want to check out this "If you liked The Secret History you'll love..." list, for instance.) Though some books in this genre are steeped in academe, others are decidedly not, and the school/university setting merely serves as a backdrop. Yet, it adds instant atmosphere. I'm slightly puzzled about my own fondness for academy yarns: yes, I can see the appeal of university, but school? It's not as if I'd ever want to go back to my own school days. A crucial aspect of these mostly-crime-novels, though, is that the school or university in question is always tradition-heavy and upmarket: not to put too fine a point on it, posh. So we get seemingly idyllic, leafy surroundings while being sternly told that these surroundings hide all kinds of sinister goings-on. It's a classic having-your-cake-and-eating-it scenario: while we are to draw the conclusion that we shouldn't judge an institution by its pretty façade, we wouldn't really want to do without the pretty façade in question in the story being told.
The Secret Place goes easy on the academe: The Likeness, also by French, was closer to The Secret History formula than this tale of moderately study-motivated teenagers. Still, there are points in common between The Likeness and The Secret Place, especially the theme of a close-knit group of friends where a threat to or perceived betrayal of the friendship eventually triggers a murder. This time, it's four girls in their early teens who share an especially intense bond. A year after a teenage boy, who was rumoured to be interested in one of the girls, was killed on St Kilda's premises, another member of the gang - the self-possessed Holly - brings a photo she has found on the school notice board where the pupils are encouraged to unload their secrets to the police. The photo shows the murdered boy and bears the inscription "I know who killed him". There are two separate mysteries, then: who killed the boy, Chris Harper, and who put the photo on the notice board? Holly's set, as well as a rivalling gang of girls led by the school bitch, are in the frame.
Though the schoolgirls are well-described, I found myself, surprisingly, more caught up in another plot thread: that of the two coppers on the case. Holly makes contact with a policeman working in the Cold Cases unit with whom she's had dealings before when she was a child witness: the unapologetically social-climbing Stephen Moran. Stephen brings the new evidence to the inspector in charge of the Chris Harper case, Antoinette Conway (who is only ever called Conway), hoping this will be his way to get a foot in the door of the Murder Squad. Conway lets him work on the case as second-in-command on sufferance, on the clear understanding that one misstep will land him right back to Cold Cases. First, I wanted Stephen not to let Conway down so he could continue working on the case (as one of the teenage protagonists might phrase it: well, duh). Then I wanted him not to let her down, full stop. In spite of reluctance from both sides, a rapport grows between them - Stephen, who's dreamt of a classy, cultured male working partner who could help him forget his own social insecurities, is surprised at how well he gels with a chippy female inspector from a similar modest background. Stephen is the narrator of half of the story - the other half, describing what really happened the months leading up to Chris Harper's death, is sandwiched in in alternating chapters - and I found myself looking forward to the cop bits, and hoping that Stephen's ambition wouldn't lead him astray and tempt him to leave what is obviously his ideal work mate in the lurch. I suspect that we're not necessarily supposed to want the cops to uncover the murderer, seeing as the culprit is most likely a mere girl who was only fifteen at the time of the killing. Well, tough. I was all in favour of Stephen and Conway getting their chit; careers and a potentially beautiful friendship are at stake here.
It's not as if the schoolgirl part is uninteresting, and I for one was convinced by the girls' teenage mind set. If I ever brave another Tana French novel, however, it will probably be in hope of seeing more of the Conway-Moran duo.