Already blessed with an innate talent for intuiting the hidden secrets of the human heart and an ear for dialog that rings true, French’s maturity as a writer is undeniable in this latest endeavor. In a tale that evolves over one grueling day at St. Kilda’s exclusive private girls’ academy in Dublin, the tragic death of a male student from a neighboring school is addressed a year later, thanks to a new piece of evidence hand-delivered to Detective Stephen Moran in Cold Cases by fifteen-year-old Holly Mackey. Because Moran had been so helpful and understanding in a previous case where Holly was a witness, her instinct is to take the evidence—a photograph of murdered Chris Harper with the cut-out words “I know who killed him”—to the detective. Though a year has passed, the effects of Harper’s violent death continue to ripple through the closely-knit group of Holly’s three best friends, an unsolved mystery that has not healed but festered beneath the weight of its secrets.
Detective Moran sees this unexpected gift from Holly as an opportunity to attract notice in Dublin’s elite Murder Squad, a career option he covets but has little hope of attaining. He takes his chance, gambling on quick thinking and an ability to relate to teens. He delivers the picture of Chris to the lead on the case: Detective Antoinette Conway, a pariah in the squad for her refusal to accept the demeaning behavior of her fellow male detectives. Prickly and sharp-tongued, Conway doesn’t suffer fools kindly, and Moran quickly realizes the fine line he treads as Conway agrees to take him along as they revisit St. Kilda’s. They fact that Holly is the daughter of well-known police detective Frank Mackey is not lost on them, a potential for further complications. Mackey has subtly assisted Moran on his career trajectory, but as an old-school detective, not only is he skeptical of Conway but certain to protect his daughter from authorities should the need arise.
It’s an intricate patchwork of past and present: the tentative relationship between Conway and Moran, rife with the baggage of her position in the Murder Squad and his need to prove his worth during the renewed investigation; and the intricate social structure of a girls’ school run by nuns and an intimidating headmistress concerned with the school’s reputation. The world the students inhabit exists on another level, one of cliques, petty jealousies and the hierarchies of popularity and privilege breaking down into two factions: the overweening Joanne Heffernan and her followers (known as “the Daleks”); and the unbreakably-bonded foursome of outspoken Holly Mackey, otherworldly Selena Wynne, wise-talking Julia Harte, and innocent Rebecca O’Mare.
In contrast to Joanne’s domination of her group, the balance of the foursome is carefully maintained, each contributing to the whole, all protected by unshakable loyalty and frequently tested by Joanne’s attempts to interfere with friendships she doesn’t understand and feels the need to destroy. While Holly is the catalyst for the renewed investigation that has long gone cold, all of the girls have been affected by the murder of Chris Harper, an event that creates deep fissures in the wall of their security and merged identity.
Told in alternating chapters, from the detectives’ new assault on the fortress of a school that abhors scandal of any sort and the months leading to Chris’ death as experienced by Holly and her friends, French balances past and present as the façade of innocence is swept away and a carefully constructed reality crumbles in the aftermath of a violent act. “The Secret Place,” a bulletin board for anonymously posting issues, is more than its intended purpose: it is the pure heart of friendship, where fear and disappointment erode loyalty; it is Moran’s realization of how badly he wants to be part of the Murder Squad and what that ambition might ultimately cost; it is a father’s determination to protect his daughter against the world, knowing he will fail. The chapters about the four friends and the boy who offers a bite of the apple are sometimes stifling, even cloying, but French has captured the terrible angst of those years, unafraid to claim this territory—or to face the heartbreak of letting go: “For just one kind of love to be stronger than any outside thing; to be safe.”