Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” Merges Murder With Academia

With the publication of her third novel, The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Mississippian Donna Tartt’s place in literary history was assured. Her first book, The Secret History, is every bit as fascinating and has been hooking readers with its blend of chilling mystery and social commentary since its publication in 1992.

Born in Greenwood and raised in Grenada, Tartt’s experience at Ole Miss as a freshman is the stuff literary legends are made of. She enrolled in the fall of 1981, and her work caught the eye of then writers-in-residence Willie Morris and Barry Hannah. Together they encouraged her to take her talents elsewhere and she transferred after one year to the exclusive, private, liberal-arts-focused Bennington College in Vermont.

It’s no surprise, then, that the setting for her first novel is the fictional Hampden College, which is described in the book as a small liberal arts school in Vermont. If she’d stayed at Ole Miss and written a similar book, would it have been filled with images of the Grove in the fall instead of winter in New England? We’ll never know. Regardless, she started writing it in her second year at Bennington, and thanks to help from friend and classmate Bret Easton Ellis, managed to get an agent, a deal, and a $450,000 advance for it. It was an unabashed success, selling more than five million copies.

A perfect blend of murder mystery and decadent college tale, The Secret History focuses on an elite group of Greek classics students at Hampden who kill one of their own classmates. You find out from the first sentence that they’ve committed this crime, but the reasons behind it develop slowly over the book’s 576 pages.

Richard Papen, a kid from California who transfers to Hampden and falls in with this isolated group of wealthy, intellectual oddballs and their reclusive professor, serves as narrator. Richard never quite feels he fits in and is at a sort of distance throughout the novel from the other characters. Therefore, we as readers are, too, and we’re left to piece things together as Richard does, always intuiting that there are bits of knowledge and information beyond our grasp.

So vivid are Tartt’s descriptions of college life and Vermont that it’s easy to feel you’re right there, surrounded by old brick buildings, dusty library books, and drunken underclassmen. The book works, too, as a modern stand-in for a classic Greek tragedy, complete with the seemingly fated inevitability of each character’s subsequent outcome.

The Secret History itself seems fated to have become a classic and is well worth a read.

(Originally published here: