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February 12, 2024

A Dark Academia Murder Mystery: A review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Elisha Feliz/Compass News

Donna Tartt’s first novel The Secret History has gained a significant amount of popularity online recently, specifically on TikTok, for encompassing the atmosphere of the “dark academia” genre. Often being coupled with the film Dead Poets Society because of the similar aesthetics present in both works. Tartt’s great writing and ability to create a dense atmosphere is what makes The Secret History a stand-out novel and a gripping murder mystery.

The pacing of the story is what evokes this suspenseful feeling throughout the novel while you’re reading. In the first few lines of the prologue, we immediately find out Bunny has been murdered. The narrator, Richard Papen, reveals that he had conspired in a group with others to carry this plan out. Tartt teases this and enters the first chapter back in time months before when the murder occurred. 

Richard is a nineteen-year-old from the west coast who was initially studying ancient Greek at a local college but then switched to English literature. He transferred to the prestigious Hampden College in Hampden, Vermont, and attended with the scholarship he was awarded.

Richard’s experience at Hampden drastically changed once he began studying Greek classics under the professor Julian Morrow. Only an exclusive group of five other students study under Julian. Richard had to drop all of his classes and take only the classes taught by him to be accepted into the classics class. The other five students are Henry Winter, Edmund Corcoran or Bunny, Francis Abernathy, and the twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay. Once Richard settles into the group and begins to create his relationships, he begins to become aware of the underlying tensions. 

Over winter break, Richard stays in Hampden due to not having enough money to fly back to California and he falls extremely sick. He hid his financial status from the others and decided to buy a room in a hotel for the break not knowing the room was unheated. Henry comes back from the trip he went on with Bunny to Rome earlier than Richard expected, and he helps Richard get back to good health. At this point, it is apparent to Richard that something had occurred between Henry and Bunny for Henry to return to Hampden earlier than expected. 

Henry reveals to Richard why there is tension between everyone in the group and Bunny. Before Richard arrived in Hampden, everyone aside from Bunny had gone on multiple trips to Francis’ secluded estate in the woods to attempt a ritual. These attempts stem from Henry’s interest in what Plato calls telestic madness. They drank, did drugs, and ingested small doses of poison in an attempt to “Escape the cognitive mode of experience” and “Transcend the accident of one’s moment of being”. The attempt in which they succeeded, Henry can only vaguely remember the events and this instance is what led to the accidental death of a farmer on the neighboring property. They hid this death and attempted to keep Bunny from knowing, but he eventually found out. 

The reason why Henry left Italy early was because the stress of appeasing Bunny had come to a head for him and he could not take it any longer. Henry conspires with the others and tries to form a plan to kill Bunny since it would set them free of the blackmail Bunny has on them since they all fear him speaking out. After some time and more tense situations, whilst the group is in the woods on a hiking trail, Henry successfully murders Bunny by pushing him off a cliff. 

The group slowly falls apart after Bunny’s death. The stress of hiding from the police and keeping their innocence from their other friends at the college makes them spiral. Richard struggles to come to terms with what they’ve done and falls into a drug issue and becomes addicted to taking pills. Henry and Camilla begin to distance themselves from the group which reveals their relationship. Charles becomes an alcoholic and gets arrested for driving under the influence. The tensions between Charles and Henry rise as Henry feels that this arrest will ruin their innocence regarding the investigation of Bunny’s death. Once Camilla began to avoid Charles, he became paranoid of Henry’s actions and believed Henry was going to kill him. Charles had tracked Camilla down since she stopped contacting the others and went to her hotel room with the intention of killing Henry. Everyone ends up in the hotel room and in the midst of the chaos, Richard ends up hurt, and before the police enter the room, Henry takes the gun and commits suicide. 

The book is fairly long; it’s 559 pages, and there are definitely moments that do drag, but the way Tartt writes makes those long portions worth it. With inspiration taken from Tartt’s time at Bennington College in Vermont, the thorough descriptions of the setting and atmosphere reflect the college experience in New England. Also, the incorporation of the Greek and other philosophical teachings within the story is not too heavy and detailed to where it is incomprehensible for a reader who is not familiar with the content to understand, but also not too surface level. Which I personally enjoyed as I was able to get exposed to these teachings in a different way. I enjoyed the time I spent reading The Secret History. There definitely were times when I would put it down and not pick it back up until a week later, but, once you get into the more compelling moments of the plot the pages will fly by. 

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About the Contributor
Elisha Feliz, Editor-In-Chief
Elisha Feliz is a journalism major from Bellport and a contributing writer for Compass News. Feliz is unsure of where she will go after graduating this fall but plans to continue her education to earn a bachelor's in journalism. She likes to draw, read, and play video games in her spare time.  

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