The Book Itself: The dust jacket is textured – every strut in the window pane is raised, as if it were really there. Cool touch, almost eerie. I’ve loved French’s simple yet skin-tingly covers ever since her first. Her books have included a dusty mirror, a white empty room, vines taking over the title letters, and the peeling boards of an old house.
My Review: I’ve got to be honest with you: I go into reading this book, and writing this review a little biased. But only in the sense that I’ve loved this author’s work consistently. Even in the lackluster additions to the series, she somehow manages to be good. I’ve written down many a quote from her books because she’s just do damn good at writing a sentence. Plus, all the characters speak in Irish slang, so that’s pretty fun.
The Secret Place does what French has done for her whole series: takes a character that had a small role in one book and makes him or her the star of a different mystery. Stephen Moran, our protagonist detective in Secret Place, played a role in the investigation in Faithful Place, the third in French’s series (more on the series installments below this review). In fact, it is Frank Mackey’s (the main detective in Faithful Place) daughter who provides a clue that reopens a case from a year ago at an all-girl’s Catholic school. A boy from the nearby boy’s school is found dead on the grounds of the girl’s school, and the murderer was never found. Moran brings the new evidence to the head detective of the case a year ago, Antoinette Conway, hoping that this will get him a foot in the door to be a part of the Murder Squad. Conway allows him to take the lead on a lot of the interviews, as he shows skill for tailoring his approach to each girl interviewed and Conway herself is, well…a bit prickly.
This book does what French’s other books haven’t done: half of the narrative is told from the girls’ perspective, the suspects and victim’s perspectives (and which count down ominously. In each flashback, Chris Harper is steadily given less time to live – three months and two weeks, then two months, then three weeks, etc.)
My issues: I think the book takes place over a single 24-hour period. Stretching 24-hours over over 400 pages is just that: a stretch. Even though the mindless string of interviews is interspersed with those glimpses into the school life and deeply personal friendships of the girls, it starts to feel tedious.
And it seems to be a rather weird theme in French’s books that a little something takes place that is never explained. I’m hesitant to tell you what that thing is in Secret Place, but let’s just say that there are ghosts and levitation involved, and I think it should have been given way more room to develop, or it should not have been included.
And the detectives! Way too much time is spent going through all eight girls involved (two groups of four friends who try to point the blame to the other), that no real attention is spent on our detectives! This probably threw me off the most, because in French’s other books, the detectives were real focal points. Their personal lives were enmeshed with the cases. They had histories. All that I know of Moran and Conway are that Moran wants in, and Conway is on thin ice because she couldn’t get a solve a year ago. And she’s a woman, so she gets a lot of crap from the male Murder detectives. For a 400+ page tome, I want to know the people who are solving the case with me, know what I mean?!
The But: BUT, French is so good at wrap-up. The conclusions of her mysteries are by far my favorite parts. The last hundred pages must be devoured in one sitting, because that’s how you figure out the big hows and whys. Secret Place is no different. I get the most character out of our detectives here. Not that I get a lot of backstory out of them, but they show conflict, they show depth of emotion. Within twenty pages, there is great failure and then great breakthrough. And I was wrong about whodunit this time! I called someone early on and it was someone else.
Overall, it’s kind of a departure from her other mysteries, but French kept me reading, like always. I kind of want the stony Conway to be the focus of the next installment!
My Grade: C
Where French has been before:
In the Woods follows Rob Ryan, our first detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. Ryan was discovered, as a child, clutching a tree trunk in the woods behind his house, with scratches all down his back and his shoes filled with blood. His playmates are never found. Unfortunately, that spine-tingly premise is not the focus of this story, which solves a murder right next to those same woods. In fact (and this is a tad spoiler-y, so read the next sentence at your own risk): you never find out what happened to Ryan in the woods as a kid. And it’s not hinted at in following books, as might be expected. It’s a pet peeve of mine, that it is never resolved. But the story is immersive and bittersweet the whole way through. French’s style hooked me into reading the rest of her series.
The Likeness is my favorite so far in the series. If you can suspend your disbelief that our main character this time – Cassie Maddox (the partner of Rob Ryan in In the Woods) looks so similar to the murder victim that she can go undercover as the victim and live among the victim’s roommates…it’s a great ride of a story. It’s probably the least eeries of the series, but it’s so, so solid.
Faithful Place follows Frank Mackey, Cassie Maddox’s undercover mentor. He returns to his hometown (and sometimes vicious family), to revisit the disappearance of the girl he was slated to run away with as a young man. Honestly, this one’s my least favorite, and I can’t tell you much more about it, 1) because that would be major spoilers and 2) I honestly don’t remember all the intricate twists and turns. I sort of remember whodunit, but I don’t remember the reasoning/the twists along the way.
Broken Harbor is my second favorite of the series. It follows Scorcher Kennedy, a colleague of Frank Mackey. And it’s the eeriest, the saddest, the one with the most atmosphere, in my opinion. A father and two children are found dead in a half-built string of estate houses. But there are video cameras pointing at holes in all the walls of the house. And Kennedy’s mother committed suicide in the same resort town many years ago. So it’s gets understandably complicated.