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  • Amanya Mathur

An Inverted Crime : The Secret History

"There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty - unless she is wed to something more meaningful - is always superficial." - Donna Tartt, The Secret History


The Secret History is a tale of rich suits and silken cravats, Greek classics, dark academia , and murder.


It is an intellectual novel of ideas and a murder mystery in which the crime and perpatrators are described in the very first page, while the explanation for the crime remains unexplored. Such an inverted mystery is also known as 'howcatchem'.


Interestingly, it is revealed to the reader that the narrator (Richard Papen) is one of the killers himself, and recounts sequentially the events leading up to the murder. He describes his process of joining a close knit group of clever misfits in a Vermont liberal arts university while he transfers there.


Richard enters into the confidence of each member of the elite group at different stages, and the reader is given to understand that there is more to the group than what meets the eye.

One of the most intriguing plot devices used by the author is that Richard is an unreliable narrator. Most of the time, he sees but does not comprehend what is taking place around him.


The narrative style of the book is similar to that of a Greek tragedy. Essentially, a tragedy lacks a single dominant and moral voice, and the reader is presented with several ideologies. Similarly, the Secret History lacks an omniscient narrator, thus the readers are deprived of a just framework to judge other characters by.


Since the story takes place much after the murder had been committed, there is much foreshadowing on part of Richard. An example of this are the lines - "[...] some of those casual remarks and private jokes assumed a horrific significance much later [...]"


Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, claimed that the moral framework of a Greek tragedy is Hamartia (fatal flaw) of that character. The book begins by Richard confessing his fatal flaw to be a "morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”


The mention of Hamartia shows its quintessence to the plot and morality of the novel. It is a portrayal of the significance of fatal flaws in an individual's fate.


There is something about Donna Tartt's style of writing that just nurtures the soul. Her descriptions are evocative to the senses and characters magnanimous.


Having dreamt of ivy league colleges throughout my life, this book has proved to be a shot of adrenaline for me. It has encouraged me to cultivate a love for learning.


The Secret History captures the fantasy of intellectual activity. Even when faced with tragedy and difficulties, books and education have always stayed loyal to the characters. They have, in fact, bonded over their love for ancient Greek texts.


Thus the book has proved to me that small dusty libraries, ancient texts and a warm cup of coffee can be the perfect atmosphere for the most beautiful friendships.


"But how," said Charles, who was close to tears, "how can you possibly justify cold - blooded murder?"

Henry lit a cigarette. "I prefer to think of it", he had said, "as redistribution of matter."


- An excerpt from The Secret History










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