The Waters book, The Paying Guests, is especially good. It starts slowly, which frustrated me -- I like her for her novels of mystery and suspense and betrayal, and I felt impatient, waiting for the good stuff . Two women (slowly) fall in love. They have a few problems -- one of them is married, and, this being the 1920s, they can't admit their relationship to anyone who is not a lesbian herself -- but despite that things seem to go fairly well for a while. I began to think this was going to be a book like Waters' earlier Tipping the Velvet or The Night Watch, about lesbian relationships and everyday life. Which is fine, of course, but not what I was reading for.
Then, more than halfway through, something happens that turns the whole thing into a Hitchcock movie. The twist is so far along that I can't say what it is, only that it's one of those plots that makes you wonder what you yourself would do in that situation, how flexible your own moral code is. The tension ratchets up, the suspense accelerates, and you begin to turn the pages with apprehension, almost fear, hoping that nothing worse is going to happen to the protagonists.
I had more problems with French's new mystery, The Secret Place -- but first, the good stuff. A teenage boy was killed on the grounds of a private girls' school, and his killer was never found. A year later one of the girls at the school, Holly, goes to the police with a postcard she'd taken from a school bulletin board, a postcard that says, "I know who killed him."
The police return to the school and begin asking questions. It becomes clear that only two groups of girls could have put up the postcard in the time available, Holly's own friends and a clique of mean girls. The story is told in alternating chapters with different timelines, one showing the events of a year ago and one set in the present, with the police interviewing the students. The whole thing is plotted out so neatly that we will first learn some fact in the police timeline and then, in the next chapter, see it being played out among the schoolgirls.
I loved Holly and her group, their friendship, their almost claustrophobic closeness. At one point they vow to have nothing to do with the students at the corresponding all-boys' school, and I loved seeing the boys' confusion and frustration at their indifference; the idea that girls might not defer to them had never even crossed their minds. I liked the two cops who come to question the girls, one of whom wants desperately to join the Murder Squad. I liked the complex plotting -- as it turns out, pretty much everyone has an idea who killed the boy, most of them wrong, and some of the characters are expending a great deal of energy covering for someone else.
The mean girls, though, seem a bit stereotypical. Maybe it's wildly optimistic of me, but I'd like to think that no one can be that mean all the time, like Joanne, or that stupid all the time, like Orla.
But my main problem with the book is that there's a supernatural element. I'm really sort of embarrassed to admit this -- I like to think I don't divide books down strict genre lines, that I can live with some fantasy in my mystery novels. There's something about this fantasy, though, that doesn't sit right with me.
At one point a boy sends Julia, one of Holly's friends, a photo of his penis. The girls are so squicked out by this and other schoolboy outrages that they make the vow I mentioned earlier, to have nothing to do with men until they get to college. There's a sense that something hears this vow -- I got the impression of an ancient, vengeful goddess, but that might be just me. So far, so good -- I can handle this part.
Then, though, the girls become able to do magic. Simple things, like turning a light on and off or moving a bottle cap. My problem is that this ability is used as a way to illustrate the girls' closeness, or maybe the goddess's approval, but it isn't at all integrated into the story. Surely teenagers with these abilities would use them against their enemies, in this case the mean girls. What would happen if a lightbulb blew out every time Joanne entered a classroom, or if Orla's pens began to move slowly across her desk? Wouldn't adolescent girls, despite their vows, start experimenting with love spells? And of course this opens the possibility that the murder might have been a supernatural event -- something that, if it had happened, would have made me throw the book across the room.
I guess what I'm saying is that fantasy can't be used as just a symbol. It's dangerous stuff -- once you allow it in it begins making its own demands. I wish it hadn't been there -- the story works just as well without it