The Secret Place
(2014), a thriller by Tana French, follows an ambitious detective hoping to solve a local murder and join Dublin’s renowned Murder Squad. The fifth book in the Dublin Murder Squad
series, it received various award nominations. Critics praise the book for its pacing and skillful use of dual timelines to tell the story. French is the New York Times
international bestselling author of multiple crime and thriller books. Her career accolades include the Los Angeles Times
Award for Best Mystery/Thriller and the prestigious Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction.
The main character is Detective Stephen Moran. When the book begins, he works in the Cold Case department. He finds his job unfulfilling because cold cases generally remain unsolved. His main goal is to join the Murder Squad so he can solve crimes before the trail goes cold. All he needs is one breakthrough on a cold case to secure his shot at the Squad.
One day, while Moran works on yet another fruitless investigation, a young girl bursts into his office. Holly Mackey claims to have information about an old murder. She shows him a picture of a boy called Chris who died at a girls’ boarding school one year ago. The picture contains the caption “I Know Who Killed Him.”
Holly can’t explain where she found the picture, but it’s enough to pique Moran’s interest. It helps that Holly’s father is the infamous Detective Frank Mackey of the Murder Squad. He offers to supervise the investigation and will recommend Moran for a promotion if everything goes well. For the first time, Moran feels his career is moving in the right direction, and he eagerly reopens the cold case.
Moran teams up with Detective Antoinette Conway who serves with the Squad. Fiery and temperamental, she doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. She makes it clear that she is not here to build Moran’s career for him. Appreciating the honesty, Moran plans to go all out to impress her.
They begin by revisiting what they know about the crime and the picture. The boy’s full name was Chris Harper. Like Holly, he attended an exclusive boarding school. It is unclear why he visited the all-girls’ school that night, but someone killed him with gardening equipment.
Meanwhile, Holly reveals that someone hung the picture on the school message board, the “Secret Place.” The headmistress set up this board to let the girls share secrets anonymously. Moran doesn’t understand how this is a good thing, but right now it’s the reason why there’s a new lead on this tragic cold case.
The search leads Conway and Moran to Holly’s clique again: Becca, Julia, and Selena. The girls love witchcraft and have paranormal powers. Becca can blow up lightbulbs with her mind, and they communicate telepathically. A bizarre twist for the murder investigation, Moran doesn’t know how to handle it.
Moran wonders if Holly is responsible for Chris’s death because she brought him the picture; guilty people sometimes come forward with key evidence to make themselves look innocent. Of course, since her father is so influential, Moran decides to keep his thoughts to himself at first. If Conway suspects the same thing, she doesn’t let on, either.
Moran spends time getting to know the girls and their unique personalities. He finds out that despising the patriarchy, they are all about girl power. They love Conway because she is strong and independent, and she doesn’t let men talk down to her. They confess to Conway that they hate another clique at school because the girls are posh, conservative, and obsessed with keeping up appearances. Conway and Moran both decide to investigate this other side of the school.
Moran interviews three girls: Joanna, Orla, and Emma. Joanna leads the clique and the other girls do everything they can to impress her. All Joanna cares about is looking good and attracting the most handsome boys at Chris’s old school. Moran wants to understand why the cliques feel so differently about the same things because it teaches him more about the teenage mindset. He sets out to learn everything he can about the school, its gender views, and its social hierarchy.
Moran finds out that Joanna hates Holly because Holly does whatever she wants. She doesn’t feel under any pressure to conform to society’s standards, whereas Joanna’s parents make her feel that she is nothing if she isn’t a stereotypical girl. After speaking with the girls for a long time, Moran feels sorry for them all, but his sympathies don’t help him crack the case.
Finally, there is a break in the case. Holly finds out that Becca killed Chris. He threatened her sexually in the girls’ own “Secret Place” beyond the school grounds. She killed him and is upset because she knows she can’t prove that it was self-defense. Now that the case is over, Moran must wait to find out if he made the Murder Squad.