In another outstanding installment in Tana French's Dublin murder squad series, the element that impressed the most in The Secret Place was her brilliant portrayal of the emotional intensity and claustrophobia of life in boarding schools.
Modern impressions of these institutions are probably driven by their fictional depiction and therefore the picture that emerges for the uninitiated is likely a combination of Harry Potter, Mallory Towers and - still now - Tom Brown's Schooldays. From personal experience there's an element of reality in all of them: camaraderie, adventures, bullying, cold showers and and all the rest.
But behind the midnight feasts and the jolly hockey sticks boarding school can be a strange experience. At the time in their lives when they are changing and trying to make sense of who they are, most boarders find themselves crammed together with dozens of others all doing the same, with little privacy, a lot of emotion and intrigue and no real escape for weeks at a time.
Somehow French came to the brilliant conclusion that this was perfect territory for a murder investigation. A young man from Colm's school in Dublin is found murdered in the grounds of the neighbouring girls' school St Kilda. After a full year's investigation the cops have not apprehended the murder. The break in the case comes when Stephen Moran, a cold case detective not involved in the investigation, is brought a new piece of evidence by a girl at the school.
Seizing his chance to make an impression that might help him on to the elite murder squad, Moran takes his evidence to the senior investigator, Antoinette Conway, and for just one day forces his way into the investigation. Together, mutually wary and suspicious, the hard-as-nails Conway and the eager-to-impress Moran head to St Kilda.
The Secret Place spins around two separate axes - the dynamic between Conway and Moran, and the relationships between the boarding girls at the centre of their investigation. The first evolves fast because all of the present action takes place in just one day, in which both detectives for their different reasons are desperate to break the case open. To succeed they have to learn to trust each other and understand their respective strengths and weaknesses. The girls' relationships get a slower burn treatment as French switches the action back and forth between the months leading to the murder and the present day.
One of the fascinating elements of the novel is that within both institutions - the police force and the school - all the protagonists face similar pressures: to fit in, to conform to stereotypes, to overcome bullying, sexism, peer pressure. The psychological profile French develops of each of her main characters - and even some of the minor ones - is convincing and suggests a writer who knows people inside out.
But it's where the two spheres - school and cops - meet that this novel is truly scintillating. One long, intricate early scene in which the detectives interview the eight key girls in turn is utterly spell-binding.
I've enjoyed all the Dublin murder squad books I've read to this point, but none more so than The Secret Place, which is revelatory in its brilliance. French is a consummate story-teller, a brilliant technician of structure and a stylish writer, particularly of dialogue. But it's the people she does best, the people that elevates this book so far above even great. This is a truly special crime novel.