Joyce: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about… where you’re coming from, how to relate to you… and I’ve come to a very simple conclusion: I don’t get it.
Buffy: I’m inscrutable, huh?
Joyce: You’re sixteen. I think there’s a, a biological imperative whereby I can’t understand you because I’m not sixteen.
Buffy: Do you ever wish you could be sixteen again?
Joyce: Oh, that’s a frightful notion. (exhales) Go through all that again? Not even if it helped me understand you.
– Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 3, “Witch”
There are actually two secret places within the novel, and it’s anyone’s guess precisely which one is indicated by the title; it could be either, or both. One is a place for secrets: a bulletin board where students at the prestigious St. Kilda’s School can anonymously share their private thoughts and feelings. The other is a specific, hidden place, a secluded cypress grove on the school grounds, that four students regard as particularly theirs, the one spot where they can find much-needed privacy away from the prying eyes of teachers and peers.
The two are inextricably linked by the death of Chris Harper, a handsome and popular student from the all-boys school a street or so away, who was found murdered on St. Kilda’s grounds at the end of the previous school year – in the cypress grove, to be precise. As devastating and earth-shattering as his death was for everyone involved, the investigation stalled for lack of evidence and was quietly set aside for over a year, until the card appeared on the school message board. Plain and white, a picture of Chris Harper and five words: I know who killed him.
Holly Mackey (whose detective father Frank appeared in French’s earlier novels Faithful Place and The Likeness) is the first to discover the card, and she brings it straight to Detective Stephen Moran; they met several years ago, when Holly was a witness in a murder investigation. Moran works cold cases, not murders, but he’s been waiting for his ticket onto the Murder Squad, to join the elite, and so he attaches himself to Antoinette Conway, the lead detective in the initial investigation, as she heads back to St. Kilda’s to re-open the case. She lets him tag along because he has an “in” with Holly, since any kind of rapport with the students was the one thing she lacked the first time, and Moran is determined to make the most of this opportunity.
From there, Conway and Moran tackle the nearly impossible task of convincing a group of teenage girls to part with their closely guarded secrets, while also facing down a headmistress closely guarding her school’s reputation, parents fighting tooth and nail to protect their offspring, and colleagues and superiors ready to snatch the case away from them. It’s a very long day, working against the clock, and it’s all they have, their one chance to get things right.
Moran narrates the investigation side of the novel, his timeline unfolding over the course of a single day; for him, time is racing. The rest is a series of chronological flashbacks leading up to the murder, spanning the better part of a school year: a macabre countdown to Chris Harper’s death. To complicate things further, Holly and her three best friends (Julia, Selena and Rebecca) are at the heart of both timelines, along with the four members of another clique at the school. For the girls, time moves slowly, creeping forward to an unknown destination, with all the breathless impatience and anticipation of adolescence, completely unaware of the tragedy they’re hurtling towards. Both timelines spins out gradually, doling out information drop by drop, as they move forwards and backwards simultaneously towards Chris Harper’s death.
For all its superficial prominence within the pages, the murder investigation isn’t really the heart of the novel; instead, it’s the story of four girls, trying to navigate and survive adolescence, while the two detectives try to figure out how, when, and above all why that journey went awry. They’re at an age where everything matters, and matters intensely; it’s easy to forget the energy, the drama, the confusion, and above all, the secrecy. Moran and Conway certainly have no desire to revisit that time of their lives, and their journey into the minds and lives of the girls is fraught with complications. The Secret Place message board was deliberately created by St. Kilda’s as a safety valve on the pressure cooker that is a lot of teenagers in one place, thought to be a better alternative to an anonymous website, and one that the school could monitor, at least to some extent. But these are smart girls, and there’s a good deal more seething and bubbling beneath the surface than any adult is willing to imagine, or remember.
Aside from the masterful construction of the larger plot, a lot of the novel’s intensity and power comes from French’s attention to detail, to the little things woven in and out of the bigger picture, where even the most inconsequential occurrences are taken note of: the universal appeal of new school supplies, lovely onomatopoeia of birdsong in the heat of late summer, a bee landing on Detective Conway’s blouse. And throughout, there’s a song that Holly can never quite catch, only hearing snippets of it, that haunts and puzzles her throughout, always slightly out of earshot.
The Secret Place is an absorbing novel, enfolding you in its pages and never letting go until the bitter end; but it’s not a comforting embrace, not at all. You read with a sort of breathless intensity as the tension builds, just waiting for the proverbial closets to spring open and for all the skeletons to start spilling out: you know something dreadful is coming, something that will hurt a lot of people, very badly, but you don’t know precisely what, or when French is going to spring it on you. In the end, there are still so many unanswered questions and uncertain futures for all of the characters, even with the murder solved. It’s what French does so beautifully: pain, secrets, and things that would be simpler, easier if left uncovered … but not better. It’s gorgeous, but achingly so.