The Secret Place by Tana French; Viking, 452 pages ($27.95). A hallmark of Tana French’s intense Dublin Murder Squad series is her use of some minor character from an earlier book as the main figure in each new one. For her latest, she chose Stephen Moran, the smart young detective who played second fiddle to formidable murder investigator Frank Mackey in “Faithful Place” in 2010.
“The Secret Place” begins when Holly Mackey, Frank’s now 16-year-old daughter and a student at a chichi boarding school, comes to see Moran. A year ago, Chris Harper, a 16-year-old boy from a neighboring and equally fancy school, was found brutally slain. To investigate, along came “enough manpower to build an office block. “No luck.
But St. Kilda’s, the girls’ school, has a bulletin board where girls can anonymously post grievances and secrets and such. Holly happens to have found a photo of Chris there with the caption “I know who killed him.” Or so she says: This is a book full of giddy, slangy, devious schoolgirls who cannot be trusted about anything.
That makes an investigation particularly challenging to both Moran, who narrates most of the book, and the case’s lead detective, Antoinette Conway, whom he is assigned to assist.
French pulls off the interesting trick of keeping the detectives at St. Kilda’s for only one day, which she strings out through 450 pages. Their investigations scenes are punctuated by elaborate flashbacks explaining the network of friendships and rivalries among the school’s smart-mouthed girls.
As is often the case with French’s books, the first chapters introduce so many characters that it takes a while to get the lay of the land: There are two separate four-girl gangs here, as well as the boys they flirt with and fight over. Within each girl group, there is the initial appearance of blind loyalty to teammates and equally blind spitefulness toward the other side. But French is a psychological storyteller much more than a forensic one. And all of these relationships turn out to be not quite the way they originally seem.