Tag Archives: Mystery

Tana French – “The Secret Place”

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.



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“Missing You” by Harlan Coben

“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if?


Letters to Juliet

As much as I loved having my parents read aloud to me when I was little, plus the fact that story time was my favorite part of the day in elementary school, I haven’t had much to do with audio books as an adult. I’m a fast reader, so I get impatient with the slower pace that comes with listening , and for longer or more serious books I worry that I’ll miss something important if my attention wanders at the wrong moment (which it will – on occasion, I have the attention span of a fruit fly, so this is a legitimate … oooh, shiny!).

This doesn’t, however, mean that I don’t appreciate the sheer power of the spoken word: quite the opposite. Which is actually another reason why I usually avoid having someone else read a book to me, especially for the first time: we all have our own interpretations of a work, which will of necessity creep into how we read it aloud, and that in turn can’t help but color how the listeners hear and view the piece. The first time I encounter a book, I want my thoughts and impressions to be mine, not filtered through someone else, however wonderful they may be.

The right reading, the right voice, the right inflection, can make all the difference in how we view a work: it can be a complete game-changer. In undergrad, I was on the staff of the student literary magazine, and part of our vetting process for all poetry submissions was to read each piece out loud before we discussed it and voted on it. On one memorable occasion, after I volunteered to read one of my favorites from that week’s selection, that year’s senior editor informed us all that he didn’t like that particular poem at all … until he heard it aloud.

In this particular case, it was a reading that prompted me to move Missing You up to the very top of my lengthy “To-Read” list, as part of our online event with the author, Harlan Coben, on March 25th. In preparation for the event, I’d studied the publisher’s blurb, skimmed the dust jacket, and then mentally filed the novel away under, “Intriguing, very much so – explore later”. As part of the evening (which was awesome, by the way, seriously, anyone who didn’t stop by missed out), Mr. Coben read a few choice pages from the first chapter, detailing a pretty crucial moment that actually jumpstarts the whole plot, and I was hooked.

It’s a novel predicated on the incredible power of “What If?” (something that also came up at length during our event with the author – Mr. Coben had a lot to say about its uses for a writer and a storyteller), and based on a pretty ubiquitous impulse: that of looking up and possibly reconnecting with an ex, the proverbial one that got away. We’ve all had it, fought against it, were seriously embarrassed by it. There are even apps designed to prevent you from stupidly (or drunkenly) giving in to it; even as you know what a truly terrible idea it would be… you still want to.

As the novel opens, Kat Donovan, an NYPD detective like her father and grandfather before her, has managed to quash that impulse pretty well over the past eighteen years, with the exception of a few moments of drunk-Googling (her words, not mine). And it certainly wasn’t her idea to sign up for online dating – the year-long membership to YouAreJustMyType.com was gift from her friend Stacey. As she browses through the profiles (among the ManStallions and LadySatisfiers -seriously?), she spots a very familiar photo – older, certainly but still recognizable as Jeff, the man she was engaged to almost two decades ago, and who walked out on her shortly after the murder of her father. She agonizes about all the possibilities of this discovery for several days … before giving in and contacting him.

Sending that one message to her former fiancé rocks Kat’s world and sends her plummeting down the rabbit hole, over the rainbow, or through the looking glass (pick your metaphor) and completely overturning what she had always believed to be true: about Jeff, about her father’s murder, about those closest to her, about herself … about everything. Her message and the consequences thereof springboard into a whole series of revelations that are on par with Luke, I am your father. And that’s just on the purely personal level: along the way, Kat stumbles upon the trail a diabolically clever and truly horrifying predator. It’s a messy, almost impossibly complicated tangle, that only begins to unravel after she tugs on a single thread.

Beyond the what-ifs, beyond the coincidence and heartbreak, the real conflict of the novel comes from the choice between speaking and not speaking, between knowing and not knowing: the unending ache of uncertainty versus the heartbreak of the truth. Kat has spent much of her adult life haunted by unanswered questions; a lot of crucial information has been deliberately kept from her by those who care about her and only want to protect her from further pain (along with protecting themselves, but that’s an entirely different matter). When it comes to the past, her mother is far happier not knowing, content with the illusion of memory or the memory of illusions (pick one). Kat is different: she simply can’t stop digging, can’t stop poking at the past, can’t stop picking at the scabs of barely healed wounds. She’s a cop, with all the instincts that entails: something smells fishy, and she can’t rest in blissful ignorance. She needs to know, needs to find out … and she does.


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“Ripper” by Isabel Allende

“The problem was not finding answers; it was knowing which questions to ask.”


– Ripper, Isabel Allende

It’s very hard, if not close to impossible, to summarize Ripper by Isabel Allende, and to put my finger on the heart of the novel: mostly because there is simply so much going on within its pages.  I love crime novels (in case this wasn’t already apparent), and Ripper certainly falls into that category, but at the same time, it’s … denser.  To leave it at that description is akin to comparing glazed doughnuts with cake ones: similar in shape, both delicious, addictive and satisfying, but the latter has so much more substance to it.

There are crimes, of course: brutal murders, a cunning killer and a terrifying abduction.  But they are woven into a much larger tapestry, one that comprises the world and relationships of two extraordinary women:  Indiana Jackson, a free-spirited holistic healer, and her disconcertingly precocious daughter, Amanda.  Both gradually find themselves drawn into the web of said cunning killer, along with almost everyone they care about, but that web in turn is part of something much greater.

At first, the murders are only personal to Amanda insofar as her father, Deputy Chief Bob Martín, is in charge of investigating them, and she can milk him and his colleagues for information, with the help of her grandfather.  Her more direct involvement stemmed from her participation in the online role-playing mystery game Ripper, when as game-master, she convinced her fellow players to shift from trying to solve fictional murders in 19th century murders London to investigating real ones in the present.  It’s an intellectual puzzle for them, a challenge and a distraction from real life, at least until the game becomes all too real.  The police even listen to the conclusions the players draw and give their suggestions fair consideration as a series of increasingly bizarre and seemingly unrelated crimes gradually grow into the work of a truly nasty serial killer – and then it’s all hands on deck when Indiana is abducted by the same.

The tension builds up steadily throughout, but with excruciating slowness, Allende tightening the screws one agonizing twist at a time.  The novel is spell-binding and hypnotic, and yet you have no idea where the plot is taking you almost until the very end.  And yet the tension isn’t just about the murders, or the race to solve them, but it operates on a far more personal level as well.  At sixteen years old, Amanda is dealing with a set of fairly extensive growing pains, trying to sort out her place in the world: very mature in some aspects of her life, but still a child in others.  She’s spoiled, reckless, and sees herself as superior to everyone around her.  This attitude is partially justified by her ferocious intellect, but subsequently countered by her lack of real-world experience.  Indiana lives very much in the now, with a passion to help everyone she encounters and an almost painfully naive belief in the innate goodness of humanity – something her ex-husband finds utterly maddening.  At present, she finds herself caught between two very different men: her long-standing relationship with wealthy socialite Alan is contrasted with her more recent and deep but platonic friendship with scarred former Navy SEAL Ryan, a man with powerful demons of his own.

All of this makes for a dense tangle of plot, setting and character (of which the city of San Francisco is one in its own right), and yet Allende guides the reader through with a deft and sure hand.  The novel is packed full of really rich descriptions of people and places, bursting with sight and sound and smell.  There is a huge cast, each painted in loving yet concise detail, even for the most minor of chatacters, and yet you never feel lost or overwhelmed by the flood of descriptions.  At the same time, however, Allende still hides as much as she reveals, giving up information only when she’s ready, and not before.  The events of the novel are laid out day-by-day, marching along in a deceptive progression that is anything but orderly.  It’s a compressed timeline, as the crimes occur over a six month span, but with roots deep into the past.   Allende takes us on a purposeful meandering through the lives of the characters, where even the most mundane details will later acquire great significance – but since you don’t know what will matter later, you find yourself squirreling away every delicious tidbit for further consideration.

At one point in the novel, Amanda discusses the formula for a successful crime novel with her grandfather, an aspiring author, explicitly comparing them to auto sacramentales: morality plays in medieval Spain, allegories of the struggle between Good and Evil.  In the plays, Good always triumphed over Evil, but Evil had the most interesting role, and Amanda believes that crime thrillers operate on the same principle.  This is not how Ripper plays out: it focuses primarily on the lives of ordinary people, mostly good, some otherwise, but always flawed, some very much so.  Good doesn’t triumph absolutely, and Evil isn’t the primary focus – just the impact its actions have on everyone involved.  At its heart, Ripper deals with life, where nothing and no one is as they first appear, with Allende slowly peeling away the layers to reveal what’s hidden underneath, and keeping you guessing until the very last moment.


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Tana French – “Broken Harbor”

A few months ago on this blog, when I wrote about Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel, I mentioned that I don’t ordinarily read books out of order.  It’s not my usual modus operandi, but sometimes, I make an exception, as I did for The Fallen Angel.  This week, I made another, for Broken Harbor by Tana French, the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad series.  My only defense is that sometimes a book sounds so compelling, so intriguing, that I just can’t help diving right in, regardless of possible spoilers or the potential failure to fully appreciate the story in the proper context.

Was it worth it?  In this case, absolutely.

The novel opens with a gruesome crime in an semi-abandoned luxury development outside of Dublin, with Detective Mick Kennedy (accompanied by a rookie partner) dispatched to investigate it.  Jenny Spain lies in intensive care, the victim of the same brutal attack that left her husband Pat and their two young children dead.  The Spains’ home (the scene of the crime) is puzzling, providing conflicting information about its inhabitants, and raising more questions than answers.  The house is beautiful, pristine, and obviously well-loved – except for the gaping holes in its walls.  An unusual number of high-end baby monitors aim their cameras at these openings, watching for … what?  These peculiarities, combined with other evidence, indicate that the Spains were afraid of something or someone, but was that fear the origin of this assault?  And did this perceived threat come from inside or outside their home?

The crime is made all the more horrific by its location, which has unsettling associations for Mick.  Years ago, this half-built neighborhood was known as of Broken Harbor, the seaside village where his family went for their annual two week vacation.  It’s also the site of their family tragedy, one that continues to haunt the detective, shaping his life even now.  His younger sister Dina was even more damaged by this event, and Mick’s unexpected return to their shared past pushes her perilously close to the edge of her already precarious sanity.

The novel unfolds with deliberate slowness after the gut-wrenching discovery of the crime, gradually peeling back the layers of the past for both the victims and Mick.  Of sheer necessity, the investigation must be deeply invasive, prying into every aspect of the Spains’ lives, relevant or otherwise.  The plot is tightly woven, with dark twists and turns as the detectives attempt to fit all the evidence into a shape that makes sense, but then are forced to rearrange the puzzle as new pieces emerge.  It is just as much a psychological exploration as murder mystery, even with murder at the heart of the story.  The why is just as much, if not more important, than the who – the latter almost serving as a tool in the service of unearthing the former.

Mick Kennedy himself is a compelling narrator, an upstanding if flawed man who is all too aware of his own failings and frailties.  He takes his job as an officer of the law seriously, seeking justice to the best of his ability, and consequently faced with terrible choices.  Being deeply damaged, he erects emotional walls between himself and the rest of the world, yet remains remarkably empathetic and insightful.  He cares deeply for others, far more than he would have even the reader know, hiding behind a facade of (admittedly justified) arrogance and pragmatism.  But then again, every other character here is equally layered and complex, unspeakably, undeniably human.  We sympathize with their mistakes, understanding their decisions even as we see the fallout of the poor ones.

Broken Harbor makes you ache, for all the loneliness and unhappiness that permeates even the most ordinary of lives.  So much emptiness, so many lives in shambles, so many clinging desperately to normality and safety, when both are just illusions.  Sometimes there are no satisfactory answers, even when you discover the why behind a tragedy.  Even after the culprit is found, nothing will ever be the same again for those involved, investigator and victim alike.  Sometimes the only thing left to do at the end of the day, as Mick does, is curl up with your loved ones and wait for the dawn.


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