If you have ears and you haven’t been listening to Serial, you frankly don’t deserve them.
The beloved podcast, a pseudo-real-time deep dive into the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, dropped its 10th episode today. Which means right now listeners all over the country are spending Thursday as they always do in this, our post-Serial world: debating the merits of a 15-year-old homicide investigation, and emphatically declaring or protesting Adnan’s proclaimed innocence. Somewhere, during a quick bite at the office cafeteria, coworkers are arguing over the inherent shadiness of Adnan’s accuser, Jay. Somewhere, a wife is screaming at her husband: “But what about the Nisha call!?!“
As runaway hits go, Serial lives up to its hype—and I say this as someone who generally keeps the Podcasts app in her phone”s “NOPE” folder, along with Stocks and iTunes U. The program is smart and thought-provoking, and bizarrely compelling for something you experience as only a listener.
But here’s the downside: If Adnan is innocent, then he’s spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and Hae’s actual killer was never brought to justice. Even if Adnan is guilty, even if all Serial host Sarah Koenig succeeds in doing is reaffirming the jury’s decision, there’s still Hae, and the knowledge that Hae’s family (whom Koenig has said are aware of the program) has had to endure an insane amount of attention for a case that was closed perhaps just long enough ago that they were starting to feel normal again. As a podcast, Serial is a win-win: We’re all entertained and enthralled and no one had to cede brain cells to the spectacle of rich white ladies throwing drinks at each other to make it so. But as a reality, it’s lose-lose: Either way, Hae’s death destroyed lives.
You know what doesn’t destroy lives? Fiction! Which brings me to Tana French, a literary crime novelist whose most recent book, The Secret Place, is part murder mystery, part Mean Girls. The book focuses on the investigation of the year-old murder of popular high school student Chris Harper, reopened after a photo of Harper with the caption “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM” is found pinned to a board where the school’s students can post anonymous secrets. Detective Stephen Moran, whom 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings the photo in question, tries to make headway in the case by interviewing Holly, her friends, and a rival group of girls at their high school, among others, but finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of opaque and manipulative teen drama: cliques and relationships and secrets that range from the innocuous to the possibly deadly.
The Secret Place is the fifth book in French’s “Dublin Murder Squad,” series, but I feel compelled to note that these books a) are way better than the pulp fiction feel of that name suggests and b) don’t need to be read in order. I’ve plowed through all of the DMS books (and reviewed 2012’s Broken Harbor on ST) and have to say that The Secret Place is definitely one of my favs. It matches In the Woods (#1 in the series, and one of the strongest) in terms of suspense and The Likeness (#2) for character development. TSP also has a touch of The Secret History to it, and Moran’s struggle to analyze friends’ (let alone teenage friends’) interactions for conclusive leads will be familiar to any Serial fan, or former teenager.
French has a particular knack for dialogue, or at least for making a dialogue-heavy novel still feel literary. But mostly she has a knack for story-telling, mystery-unfolding, and page-turner…creating. Her detective protagonists are always conflicted and interesting, and the cases themselves are as detailed as any true crime story. It’s possible that no book could have the same addictive quality as listening to a felon contemplate his incarceration over the crackly connection of a prison phone call, or as straining to hear a witness’s testimony under cross-examination over the rumble of a subway commute. But even Serial fans need something to do the other 6 days, 23 hours and 20 minutes of every week. With the help of Tana French, we could all be spending up to 10 percent of our time on the voluntary pondering of old homicide investigations, and if that’s not the life, I don’t know what is.
TITLE: The Secret Place
AUTHOR: Tana French
PAGES: 464 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: In the Woods, The Likeness
SORTA LIKE: Serial meets The Secret History
FIRST LINE: “She came looking for me.”