The Secret History by Donna Tartt
*Point 4 contains Spoilers*
By Katy Loftus
You know those books you should have read, and yet for some reason have never quite got round to? Well The Secret History has always been one of mine, hailed as it is as a masterpiece of American crime writing. So the publication of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s new book (out on October 22nd), was a welcome prompt for me to open her much-adored debut novel and finally understand what all the fans were going on about.
My first and embarrassing realisation was just how clever The Secret History is. Having read a lot of crime and thriller books that aren’t always the highest of brow, I was impressed by the knowledge and nuance Tartt displays in this story of a cultish group of students who commit murder and get away with it. When the plot is summarised like that, it’s easy to reduce it to genre, whereas The Secret History is so much more than that. Joining the tradition of the great outsider-coming-of-age novels like The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited, it visits that pivotal time of life when a person’s personality is being formed – for better or for worse – with repercussions that are felt for ever.
However, as this is a crime and thriller blog, not a dissertation, I’d like to share four things that I think makes Donna Tartt’s debut novel one of the best crime novels ever:
1. One word: suspense! Right from the first page you know that there has been a murder, that the narrator was involved, and that he hasn’t been convicted for it. What more can you ask for from a prologue? And the manner in which the narrator Richard tells us – so flippant and so matter-of-fact – convinces us that here is a murderer with a difference; whom we want to understand. From there we hurtle on through the pages, urged onwards by the promise of terrible things to come…
2. One of the greatest gifts of the crime writer is to make murder believable and understandable. Tartt achieves this with the greatest of ease. Why wouldn’t five students kill a man in their quest to have a bacchanal, and then kill their friend in a bid to keep it secret? Quite. Yet we are utterly swept along, understanding of Richard and his friends’ motives, convinced that every step is fundamentally logical. She almost manages to convince you that in the same situation, you may well have done the same.
3. Through death, Tartt tells us about life. It’s a fairly simple murder plot, and yet she uses it as a vehicle to write about every aspect of life – family, education, separation and belonging. We come away knowing more about humanity and about the terrible potential inside ourselves.
4. The ending of a brilliant crime novel should initially be like a punch to the gut, and then afterwards it should stay with you, brooding on your shoulder. And The Secret History definitely does this, although not in the way you might expect. I had to re-read it, so disappointed did I feel the first time I read the epilogue. And yet I ended up utterly admiring the daring of it. No one gets convicted for the murder of the farmer or Bunny. None of the police force ever really gets close to the truth, or even cares about the truth. Our narrator Richard doesn’t even seem to feel very guilty. But this is the beauty of it – there is no justice in the world, and there is no justice in this book, apart from the most anarchic kind. Instead, each character pays in their own subtle way, via the much more understated but lengthy routes of guilt, revenge and slow degradation of the soul.
It’s not often that books with this much universal adoration live up to the hype, but I left The Secret History feeling as though I could read it again and again, and still be shocked, amazed and in absolute awe of this master of crime writing. In publishing terms, it’s literary gold: a book with a deadly hook and an intelligent soul, beautifully written and chillingly told.