The Secret History by Donna Tartt – Book Review

Title: The Secret History

Author: Donna Tartt

Rating: 5/5

Genres: Whydunnit, Adult Fiction, Crime Fiction, Inverted Detective Novel

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

When people to ask me, an English graduate and self-confessed bibliophile, ‘so what is your favourite book?’, it sends my mind reeling. Do I pick from my childhood loves of Harry Potter, or do I go to my Gothic favourites of Dracula or Wuthering Heights, or do I even bring out the doorstopper of a novel, Gone with the Wind? It honestly is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer. But I do usually narrow it down to a few select books, and have justified reasons for so. And within this, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is always there.

Now known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and with massive international acclaim, Tartt and her The Secret History is not an unknown book or author, and nor is it one that quietly unappreciated. As a debut novel, and written in 1992, The Secret History had an initial print run of 75,000 copies (which is a big deal, considering the usual print run is 10,000) and it instantly became a best-seller. In her literary life, Tartt has only written three fictional books, yet she has amassed a huge following, and whenever I read her books, I find myself feeling so unbelievably small when you experience the genius way she crafts sentences and plots.

So, through this brilliantly more-ish and highly addictive tale, the reader meets Richard Papen, as he gives the recollections of his time as a freshman in an imposing and highly prestigious college in Vermont. And whilst in this college, Richard quickly falls under the allure of the reclusive and almost other-worldly Classics students, and quickly becomes friends with them all. But as he falls further into the group, and the complexities that they all have, Richard finds himself tangled up in a web of terrifying crime, ancient Grecian traditions, and tragic circumstance which ultimately ends up in the murder of one of the group members by the rest of them.

Labelled as more of a ‘whydunit’ rather than a ‘who’, the novel explores the ideas of increasing anxieties, builds up of tensions, unavoidable circumstances and the panic that comes with guilt. So this novel could happily run with detective fiction anytime, and as it is written in such an excellent way, it really gives the reader the sense of actually being there, committing the crime and reaping the consequences. As the text deals with a very Classics-heavy theme, this novel certainly has elements of a ‘Greek tragedy’ to it. With whole unavoidable circumstances, hamartia, fatal flaws and an overall ‘tragic’ element, the ancient Grecian world does impact on the text. And I, as a once-Classics student, really appreciated it. But this novel can be easily read by any person who is hungry for a satisfying and stimulating read. The novel also would appeal to readers who like the ‘campus’ genre of fiction, as the college that they all attend is beautifully described, and makes you wish you could see Vermont throughout the seasons.

Through her writing, Tartt has really reached down to the subconscious of the human mind and has, therefore, made characters so unique and realistic that you cannot help picturing and drawing from them. With the complex nature of Henry – who is, by far, my most favourite character – Tartt has given him enough depth, personality and mystery to make him a puzzle. And even with Richard, who as the protagonist and newcomer to the group could seem a little flat compared to the rest of the students, he seems realistic, and gives the reader an outsider view on the strange group of students that he becomes friends with.

The novel doesn’t seem to drag, but tease the audience with little tidbits here and there, and makes the ending well-done and highly satisfying. This text works brilliantly as a stand-alone piece of work, and there isn’t necessarily anything else Tartt could have done to make it better. Easily labelled as a modern classic, Tartt is really an author to read and watch out for. I know that I am highly anticipating the next novel.


To buy the book – Waterstones

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – Book Review

Title: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Author: Robert Galbraith

Genre: Detective Fiction/Murder-Mystery/Whodunnit/Crime Fiction

Rating: 4/5

“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

When set against the greats such as Christie’s Poirot, Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Chandler’s Marlowe, the detective in crime fiction certainly has standards to live against. And through all these mysteries, whodunnits, kidnapping, exortion, missing persons and good ol’ fashioned murders, readers begin to wonder if there can ever been a new detective who can rival these. But fear not! For in 2013, under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, our favourite magical writer J.K Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling, and gave us a detective with more issues than Vogue.

When, on one snowy night, the supermodel Lula Landry plunges off her Mayfair balcony, her death sends shockwaves through the press and celebrity world. Written off as a desperate suicide bid, the case seems closed on this tragic event, and her family are left to grieve the loss of their daughter. However, when her brother seems to have his doubts, and begins to suspect murder, he starts his own search and enlists the skills of private investigator, Cormoran Strike. Strike, a hulking war veteran with both physical, and psychological injuries, and whose life seems to on a downward spiral, initially takes on the case for pure financial gain. Yet, as he becomes involved in the secret world of the celebrity, and what the glitz and glamour hides to the public, Strike begins to piece together Landry’s last few hours, and whether it was a cry for help, or something far more sinister.
Like the traditional murder-mysteries, it does follow a familiar pattern of the description of the murder scene, introduction of the detective, being employed to take on the case, the long witness questioning, and narrowing down of events until the detective reveals what happened, and although it does follow this pattern down, it never seems to be dull or dip in interest at any time. Galbraith (as I will be calling the author) was very methodical in his approach to narrowing down the case, and making Strike research every possible avenue, so the reader benefits from every aspect of this case.

The characters in the novel truly have clearly been clearly thought out, and almost birthed by the author to make actually fully-fledged individuals, each with their different flaws and situations.
Cormoran Strike is one of those characters who you warm too and find yourself wanting to meet such a person. His complex life and back-story is played out so well, that it doesn’t feel as though you’re being fed information, but you just pick up on it and piece a person together in your own time. For the reader, his grumpy and less than perfect personality makes him even more lovable, and there are points when you do just want to slap him due to his argumentative side.
With Robin, Strike’s assistant, she is also a figure of great intrigue. A perfect counterpoint to Strike, as she is a woman who knows her own mind, is highly intelligent and determined and uses her own initiative throughout the text, which makes her an invaluable piece in the case.The working/friendship relationship between Robin and Strike is also one of ups and downs throughout the novel, but plays back-fiddle enough to make it not too in your face, but enough to keep it interesting.
The other characters, and most interestingly, the deceased figure of Lula Landry do each get significant parts of the novel dedicated to the exploration of who they are and why they are driven into being important to the crime. What I find interesting is that Lula, despite being dead before the novel even starts, her story is revealed right throughout the novel, and at the end, she feels like one of the most alive characters going.
Also, it’s interesting to see how Galbraith portrays the media circus around the case. Due to the death being one of a famous model in such a dramatic circumstance, bringing the media back into the threshold of the possible murder is a constant weapon that Strike is aware of throughout the entire narrative. It makes the novel feel tense, and that if a slip-up could happen, it couldn’t be hidden.

The language used throughout the novel flows well, and draws the reader in, and only releases its hold until the last page has been turned over. Galbraith is very good at describing people as well as transcribing accents and dialects, which does add to the realism of the text. The author also describes the city of London in a convincing and realistic manner, and does make you feel that you, the reader, is right next to Strike as he runs through dark allies and into abandoned houses.

I found this novel to be highly readable, very interesting, a complete page-turner and also complex enough that you do keep guessing what actually happened until the very end. And as this is a first in the series, I can expect great things from Strike and Galbraith. This particular book is available now, along with the sequel.

So, if you as a reader, enjoyed:

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Then you’ll love this!


Buy the book – Waterstones/Amazon

Author’s Website – Click Here

Author’s Twitter – Click Here