Solving the mystery of Tana French; one of fall’s most eagerly awaited novels

When I was a kid, my parents had a thing for Murder, She Wrote. We’d watch every week, competing to guess whodunit, how, and why. And somehow, one Sunday, it clicked for me: the culprit was always the extra person, the one whose absence (minus that PG offing in Act I) would have minimal repercussions for the rest of the story. I started winning, wowing my family with an unprecedented run of spot-on guesses. I like to win, and the “extra person” hack helps me do it. I’ve beat Miss Marple to the solution on several occasions.

Tana French
Tana French

I don’t win when it comes to the works of Tana French. (As a solver of mysteries, I mean; as a book-lover, French is all win.)

If you’re unfamiliar with French’s Dublin Murder Squad series—SPOILER ALERT!—stop reading this. Log off and get thee to a bookstore. They’re extraordinary novels, gorgeous, engrossing, and—at least to this mystery reader—un-hackable.

Which is not to say unsolvable. My husband (who’s not, for the record, a detective) always figures it out. Always. Twice, he’s pinpointed the culprit the first time he or she appears on the page.  It’s gotten to the point that I have to turn my back on him whenever we discuss French’s latest; I’m a fast reader with a lousy poker face, and—despite my less-than-healthy competitive streak—would hate to spoil the end. So I sit, silent, while he guesses correctly yet again, and wonder what’s wrong with me.

Maybe I lean too hard on my “extra person” trick. Despite the lush tartness of French’s prose (in her latest, The Secret Place, a teenaged boy’s “hard-cut mouth [is] electric with maybe kisses” and “the moon pulls strange colors from the sky”), there is nothing excessive to her plotting, no image or character that can really be spared.

The Secret PlaceOr maybe it’s the pull of French’s contexts, the way her books look beyond crimes and into the social stew that gives rise to them. While the detectives in The Secret Place (spoiler alert!) successfully solve a cold-case murder at St. Kilda’s (an upper crust boarding school), the book’s larger themes—the myopic intensity of adolescent friendship, the toxicity of an enclosed elite, and the particular hell of being a teenage girl in the age of camera phones—are less easily resolved.

Or it could be that Tana French ’s narrators are so deftly drawn that their blinders become my own. Each of the Murder Squad books is voiced by a secondary character from the preceding book. It’s a stroke of brilliance that allows French to repeatedly narrate from moments of extreme personal, psychological, and professional vulnerability without straining her readers’ credulity that so much drama could befall a single character. In The Secret Place, that narrator is (mostly) Stephen Moran, who readers first met several rungs down the career ladder in Faithful Place. Now working in the Cold Cases division, Moran spies a chance at promotion to Murder when Holly Mackey (daughter of Faithful Place’s narrator Frank Mackey), arrives in his office with a new lead in an unsolved and high-profile homicide. French fans will be happy to hear that the sometimes charming and always inscrutable Frank also puts in an appearance in The Secret Place, though there may be some grumbling that the book breaks from French’s usual structural approach.

The Secret Place, while compelling and intricately plotted, is a very different Tana French. An infusion of third-person narrators offers a more intimate view of the buildup to and aftermath of the central murder than Detectives Moran and Conway (lead detective on the case who I desperately hope narrates French’s next book) are ever afforded. A subplot dips into the unexplained supernatural. And French plays with the timeline, elongating it for the St. Kilda’s girls while giving (for reasons of departmental politics) Conway and Moran a single day to “take [their] collar.”

And maybe those differences are what allow me to say the following: I did it! I solved a Tana French—finally. But that’s all I’ll say on the matter. My husband hasn’t had a chance to read The Secret Place yet, and with books this good spoilers could well necessitate couples’ therapy.

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