Devices and Desires

I love reading murder mysteries. I’ve written a couple, but they’re unpublished and not, I think, very good. The modern mystery novel has quite a different flavor from the classics by Agatha Christie. There’s more tension and danger, for starters. Beyond that, mystery writers have to dig deep to find fresh stories.

A friend recently recommended Tana French to me. French’s police procedurals are set in modern Dublin, Ireland. I quite enjoyed The Trespasser and Broken Harbor, but I’m less thrilled by The Secret Place, which I finished last night. French is a fine writer, make no mistake, but this book is not a model that I’d suggest aspiring writers emulate.

Mild spoilers follow.

The two police detectives are investigating a cold case at a pricey private secondary school for girls. A year before, a boy from the pricey private boys’ school down the road was murdered on the grounds of the girls’ school, and the case was not solved. But now there’s a new clue.

In alternating chapters, we see the detectives questioning various girls and flash back to a year and a half before. The flashback chapters take place well before the murder. Jarringly at first, they’re in present tense while the current action with the detectives is in past tense. That’s an odd choice, but I think it makes sense. The flashback chapters allow us to get into the girls’ heads and learn a lot about their social sphere and emotional concerns.

Nonetheless, it’s a distracting way to structure a mystery novel, because for fully half of the book, the murder has not yet taken place, and no sleuthing is involved. We’re strictly reading a novel about a bunch of teenage girls at a private school in Dublin — and that may not be the most urgent or compelling material to offer the typical mystery buff.

The second issue, for me, is that the girls mostly talk in very 1980s Valley Girl slang — lots of sentences ending with question marks? Even though they aren’t questions? Hello? It may be realistic; I don’t know any teenage girls in Dublin to ask; but a little goes a long way. Oh, and the texting, complete with misspelled words? And the dick pics the boys send the girls? Eww.

Beyond that, the girls (and the boys they get tangled up with) are not very likeable characters. There’s a great deal of talk about snogging and shagging and boys getting their hands up girls’ tops. There’s a fair amount of sneaking out of the dorm at night to meet the boys in the woods, get drunk, and smoke cigarettes. But none of the characters is admirable or serious about life. Culturally and emotionally, they’re living in a hothouse, or in a cave. Again, maybe it’s realistic, but it doesn’t make for a fun read. Girl cliques trading nasty-clever repartee is fun, but it doesn’t move the mystery plot forward.

The third issue is that French has the girls in one clique doing little poltergeist tricks, quite literally making light bulbs turn off and on without touching them. I suspect French felt she had to do this (for a reason I’ll get to in a moment), but it’s a mistake. Even if you, as a writer, believe firmly in the reality of psychic phenomena, I would urge you to leave that type of thing strictly alone when writing a mystery. Mystery readers want logical explanations for things!

If you’re writing a mystery that is also a fantasy, the rules change — but if that’s the book you’re working on, you’ll want the magic or psychic phenomena to be central to the plot, not a few unexplained bits, as is the case in The Secret Place.

Toward the end of the book, the detectives have figured out which girl is the murderer. (No, I won’t spoil it for you.) But they have no evidence that would stand up in court, only a bunch of inferences from interviews with girls who are all lying about various things. In order to close the case, they see that they’re going to have to get the guilty girl to confess.

However, this girl has managed to keep her secret locked up for more than a year. This was the narrative problem that French had to solve. So along the way, the author has left a trail of bread crumbs. Many of the girls at the school, it seems, believe in ghosts. The ghost of a long-dead nun is mentioned, and there’s a scene shortly before the climax in which a roomful of girls all (or mostly) think they saw the ghost of the dead boy at the window. What they saw, or why, is never explained.

Having introduced poltergeist phenomena as a real part of the narrative, French ought perhaps to have given the reader a hint about whether the ghost was real. But she skips blithely past that question. No, the point of this thread of the narrative (if a thread can be said to have a point) is that the guilty girl is predisposed to believe in ghosts because she knows psychic phenomena are real. The detectives (though they know nothing about the business with the light bulbs) are going to scare her into confessing by convincing her that the ghost is after her. Or will haunt her. Or something. The scene itself doesn’t hang together well; the guilty girl confesses because that’s the only way French can end the novel properly.

Ultimately, it’s a good story. It’s a story about teenage girls bonding with one another, the emotional tangles that can result, and the tragedy that such a tangle has led to. I’m not sure French could have told the story any other way. But when I tally up the alternating chapters, the thick slabs of Valley Girl slang, the absence of likeable characters, the introduction of psychic phenomena, and the implausible ending, I can’t recommend it as a mystery.

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