In all my searchings for new murder mysteries to read and write about, I would never have found Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on my own. I happened to see a trade paperback copy on a processing cart in the Operations department one day, read the back and thought “Huh, that could be interesting.” So I requested the original hardcover edition (no one else waiting on the request list), only to realize when it came in that it is a republished title from 1992.
This is not a problem – I am not one of those people who insists that books must be less than legal drinking age in order to read it. But I also noticed that the book (in its original form) is 524 pages long.
This could be a problem. Luckily, it proved not to be. Sure, this was more of a commitment than the next story in a cozy series. But it was rich and dense, and well worth the effort that went into reading it.
The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a latecomer to the Classics degree at Hampden College in Vermont. The Classics degree is awarded to students who forsake virtually all other aspects of their liberal arts education to study under the tutelage of Julian Morrow. The group of five – six with Richard – meets in Morrow’s office, drinking tea, translating ancient Greek, discussing civilization and society, aspiring to the spotless precision of a Classical existence in the degenerate late-20th-century United States.
Any of us who has at times aspired to the purity of prolonged academic pursuit will recognize the ache Richard feels as he tries to belongto this exceptional group of people. I know that there was a poignant familiarity suffusing page after page for me. But as with groups that artificially remove themselves from larger society, dark impulses run close to the surface.
Richard soon becomes secret-keeper to the smaller group; four of the five others have done something terrible in the throes of momentary madness achieved when trying to recreate a Dinoysian ritual in the thick New England woods. The fifth, Edmund Corcoran – Bunny – is not to know.
But when he finds out, something must be done. And thus Richard becomes part of a greater conspiracy – the seemingly unavoidable necessity of murdering Bunny. Because Richard narrates the story, the reader is granted an unimpeded sense of the momentum, the necessity, the complete lack of questioning that accompanies the realization that everything will be fine, if only Bunny can be removed from the equation.
And once that terrible calculus is wrought, what follows is an appalling disintegration – of personalities, of the entire logic on which the action was based. It might not come from standard channels, but the five – Richard, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Henry – certainly do not escape judgment and retribution. Donna Tartt uses the tragedy of a hapless group of kids who would set themselves apart from the world to illustrate richly, withan eye to both strengths and flaws, the deep humanity possessed of every person.