Reviews of: Megan Abbott, The Fever and Tana French, The Secret Place
Crime fiction has often been accused of indulging in the clichés of the dangerous and the endangered woman – the femme fatale, the female victim. The degree to which such generalisations oversimplify the genre is apparent if one reads the steadily growing number of women crime writers who, from the 1940s on, have created subtle, diverse explorations of a great range of female protagonists – from damaged children and wilful teenagers to deceived partners, oppressed housewives, guilty mothers, tough businesswomen. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, psychological thrillers have given readers a chance to enter into the subjective perceptions of non-stereotypical women in ways that subvert and reappropriate some of the most familiar and time-honoured generic conventions.
Our focus here is on teen-centred crime fiction. Some of the most highly regarded contemporary female crime writers have written compellingly about teenage experience – Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French. They represent transgression, resistance to constraints on female agency, dawning sexuality, and, above all, female friendship – being best friends and also, of course, betraying and destroying those friendships. Amongst recent novels, two of the outstanding examples of teen-centred psychological thrillers are Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Tana French’s The Secret Place.
Our May 2015 reviews are part of a new Editor’s Choice feature – a selection of some of the best crime novels published during the last two years.
Megan Abbott, The Fever, Picador (July 2014)
Like Abbott’s The End of Everything (2011) and Dare Me (2012), The Fever creates a lyrical, suspenseful and disturbing evocation of adolescent sexuality and all of its attendant confusions. No one knows what ‘the fever’ is. In class one day, a girl’s chair rocks, her desk vibrates and she falls to the floor, face bright red, eyes black, mouth frothing. It looks like an epileptic fit, but isn’t – and soon many other girls begin to suffer the same disturbing, unexplained seizures. For the protagonist, Deenie, there is “a bigness to the day that is more than she could ever want.” Dawning sexuality and teenage panic magnify everything that happens in ways that could never have been anticipated: Deenie reflects, “You spend a long time waiting for life to start — her past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant — and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.”
Abbott’s novel is as much about communal hysteria as it is about the fevered delusions of adolescence. Feverishness infects not only life in the school but the adult community. Unfounded theories and wild speculations are rife: some are convinced it must be a new kind of virus; Bailey Lu exclaims that “it’s the drilling!… it’s poisoning us!”; the opaline lake takes on sinister qualities, beautiful but a cause of sickness; Sheila from the school-board meeting rants about vaccinations and autism, and – becoming more unhinged by the minute – proclaims that the girls are being inoculated to protect them from boys, “Spreading your semen anywhere you want. That’s the poison. Your semen is poison.” Speculations and accusations divide the community; oficials consult with experts who specialise in “mass psychogenic illness.” Some of the mysteries are resolved, but others remain, and Abbott’s beautifully judged ending balances our wish for resolution against one of the truths at the heart of Deenie’s maturation and her acceptance of life’s bizarre transformations: “That there would be mysteries impenetrable.”
Tana French, The Secret Place, Viking (September 2014)
Like The Fever, The Secret Place immerses readers in a world of adolescent obsession and burgeoning sexuality, and, like Megan Abbott, Tana French writes many of her scenes in a dreamy, hypnotic style that conjures up the heightened intensity of teenage emotion and experience: “The breath is spun out of them and the world rocks around them and they keep going. They’re spun out of themselves, spun to silver dust flying, they’re nothing but a rising arm or a curve of cheek in and out of ragged white bars of light.” But she also creates more fully than Abbott the enmities and antagonisms of rival cliques, the casual cruelty and daily humiliations that dominate life in the claustrophobic world of an all-girls boarding-school. She specialises in recreating the rhythms and clichés of teenage power plays and verbal warfare.
The girls whose lives we follow most closely are bonded in a friendship so all-consuming that it seems as though the external world can’t touch it: “This has nothing to do with what anyone else in all the world would approve or forbid. This is all their own.” But both maturation and the solution of the novel’s mystery require a recognition of the unavoidable collision between the intensity of the dream world and harsh reality. In an engrossing, leisurely narative, French gives us, in alternating chapters, the months leading up to the murder of a student from a neighbouring boys’ school, and a grown-up perspective on the whole enclosed, overwrought world of St Kilda’s school. The Secret Place is part of French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and this novel’s detective protagonist, Stephen Moran, struggles throughout, in a level-headed, compassionate way, to understand the passions, fears and antagonisms that led to the murder. The interrogation requires the patient, perceptive questioning of the girls in the school. The world of the detectives, like that of the girls themselves, is riven by betrayals and divided loyalties, but Moran works very hard to see through to the truth of what happened. Whereas, in The Fever, adolescent hysteria and failures of understanding are matched by the hysterical misconceptions of an entire community, here, grown-up thoughtfulness and perseverance are in some measure rewarded.
The reader’s patience in following the complicated narrative of The Secret Place is rewarded by detailed insights into the tangled relationships amongst the girls – into the private worlds they create, the jealousies and misunderstandings that drive the narrative. In French’s meticulously constructed story, answers are only gradually revealed. Because we see so clearly into the girls’ subjective worlds, the solution to the crime has both the satisfaction of a mystery plot resolved and the sad sense that youthful hopes are inevitably betrayed. The doorway they go through isn’t just to the wonder of new experiences but to the pain and disillusionment of adulthood: “They look at each other like explorers in the doorway of a long journey, all of them caught motionless in the moment before one of them takes the first step.”