I've read every one of Tana French's Dublin Squad mysteries, and each time I've found myself thinking, well, the first one (In the Woods) is still the best. And I thought that when I read this one too, but this time, I had to think rather hard about it before concluding that this one is a close second.
What French does so well is she doesn't follow the mystery tropes--she writes a novel with fully developed characters who happen to be dealing with a mystery. In this case, the mystery is the death of teenaged Chris Harper, found murdered on the grounds of a girl's boarding school (his own boys' boarding school is nearby). Who killed him? Why?
Months pass, and the murder remains unsolved. Then one morning, a girl from the school shows up at the police department. Her school recently put up a bulletin board called the Secret Place, where the students can post "secrets" and remain anonymous (think PostSecret). Someone has posted a card that says they know who killed Chris Harper, and the girl thinks the police should know.
After that, we tumble down a rabbit hole of mean girls, school politics, and teenage emotions. But--lest you think this is just a tiresome teen book, French also illustrates how these teen foibles, evil as some of them are, become part of the adults these teens become, even if they become more sophisticated in how they behave.
French has built a great narrative structure for her story. The book is told in alternating chapters: the first set is from the point of view of Stephen Moran, a detective who's been stuck in Cold Cases and sees this as his chance to make the move to Murder, even if he has to work with Antoinette Conway, a Murder detective who has quite a few issues of her own. Their chapters are told across the span of one day, from the arrival of the postcard and through their interrogations at the school, until the truth finally makes itself known.
The second set is in third person, spanning a longer time frame from months before the murder until the present day, as two separate groups of girls--one of which definitely qualifies as "mean girls"--circle and harass each other, with both groups having an interest in the lovely Chris Harper, and both having multiple candidates for the murderer.
The storylines converge beautifully, and all the characters--including the murder victim--are multi-layered, with flaws and good points and all the vagaries of human nature. The Murder Squad is no less a hotbed of gossip and backstabbing than the common room of the girls' school.
My only quibbles are that the book is a tad longer than it needs to be. There are some sections, especially during the interrogations, that get a bit repetitive. At the very end, there's a scene with one of the girls and her mother which feels forced, as if French wanted to make a final point about friendships established during your teens. The mother hasn't made an appearance anywhere else in the book, and the point she's making has already been driven home many other ways.
Still--I really liked this and could hardly put it down. I read somewhere that French is already at work on the next book, and it features the prickly Det. Conway. I'm in.