With my book doctor hat on, I’m fond of saying to writers: ‘If you want a masterclass on how to write an action adventure/spy fiction/psychological thriller, read no further than Lee Child, Gerald Seymour or Nicci French.’ With plenty of top flight authors from which to choose, I don’t always name these writers but they often come top of my list. Well, I’ve just got a new ‘Mistress’ to add to the genre and, for me, she’s in a class all of her own: Tana French.
I read her debut novel, ‘In The Woods’ when it was first published and loved it, but I can be horribly fickle when it comes to keeping faith with writers so I hadn’t read her subsequent novels. I blame it on too many authors and not enough time, not that this deterred me when I was sent a review copy of ‘The Secret Place,’ French’s latest novel.
The basic outline is as follows: Chris Harper is a senior schoolboy murdered in the grounds of a girls’ boarding school. One year on, the case has gone cold until Detective Stephen Moran is handed a photograph with a message written on it: ‘I know who killed him.’ It’s down to Moran and his boss Antoinette Conway to have a last shot at nailing a killer.
Honestly, it’s difficult to know where to start with French. Her writing is so astonishingly brilliant that you want to munch up every word and read every sentence at least three times. The way in which she captures the way in which teenage girls behave, taunt and speak en masse is a triumph in its own right. Deeply unsettling, I was unsettled – particularly as I’d had a lousy time at boarding school myself, admittedly ‘back in the day’. French knows exactly how to create that particularly febrile hothouse atmosphere peculiar to close-knit educational establishments; her grasp of the strange intimacy that bonds young women, with vows made and broken, are faithfully portrayed. She maintains suspense with a vice-like grip. Finely plotted, her story oozes psychological insight. Police procedure is given a seriously new twist while remaining utterly authentic. She puts creep into creepiness and sparkle in the craic. In short, French doesn’t put a foot wrong and I found myself helplessly flipping those pages and wishing my train journey – where better to read – would last until I turned the blistering and exquisitely written final page. Another storming novel from Hodder…