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Vox Book Club, The Secret History, week 2: How to cover up a murder

You know things are getting rough when Henry wants a television.

A book with the words Vox Book Club on the cover. Zac Freeland/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to week two of the Vox Book Club’s May coverage of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This week, we’re covering chapters 6 and 7, when the vulgar mundane world at last begins to intrude on our crew of merry murderers. I’ve read the whole book, but I won’t discuss any spoilers in this post. Feel free to discuss spoilers in the comments, but please make sure to mark them clearly.

There’s a lot going on in these two chapters. The gang commits to their coverup in the face of an FBI investigation! We finally meet Bunny’s family and see his funeral! Richard continues to assure us he is in love with Camilla while being plainly more interested in Francis! Let’s get into it.

These two chapters are all about everyday vulgarity

Hampden has been an Oxonian dreamland for Richard for most of this book, all sports jackets and civilized cups of tea and intense conversations about the nature of beauty in tiny private classrooms. But post-murder, college as it was for most people in the early ’90s comes crashing rudely into his worldview.

Richard goes to a house party. He takes a hit off a bong. He hooks up with a girl, and not even a girl who exclusively hangs out with the guys and wears suits like Camilla, but just a regular girl. So mundane! So vulgar! So out of keeping with the world he’s been showing us up until this point.

But everything now is less enchanted, less rarified than it was when Bunny was alive. The classics kids react to the cops like characters from the movies, not characters from a novel. They have to bring a TV into Henry’s monk-like apartment. They start to get interested in trashy sci-fi TV movies because those are more bearable than spending time with the Corcorans.

And the Corcorans are from another world entirely; the Corcorans with their Kennedy-esque affectations and their modernist house and their kids who call each other “butthole.” They’re so antithetical to the classics kid aesthetic that Henry spends his whole visit to their home with a sick headache, as though he’s allergic to them. (Henry also leaves out bowls of milk for spirits and really wants to talk with the police psychic, so hey, maybe he is!)

Bunny, we learn, was the best of the Corcorans, and it seems that what made Bunny the best of them was that his aesthetic came closer to fitting in with the classics kid aesthetic than the rest of the family’s is able to do. Bunny was gauche and he was vulgar, but in a way the classics kids could find endearing — until they stopped finding it endearing, and they killed him. The rest of the Corcorans, they seem to find just pathetic.

All of these aesthetic disruptions are part of what traditionally happens post-murder in a detective novel, especially if we’re going by W.H. Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” in which he lays out the classic detective novel structure. (I am indebted to my brilliant friend Lisbeth Redfield of Pen + Brush for pointing me toward that one.)

According to Auden, in a detective novel, innocent characters experience no disruption between their aesthetic interests as individuals and their ethical obligations to the world, and in the stasis in which they live before the murder, they believe their entire community is the same. The murder, however, disrupts this unity, and it’s the detective’s job to recreate what Auden calls “the state of grace in which the aesthetic and the ethical are as one.” For Auden, that resolution is what makes detective novels so satisfying to read. When the detective solves the murder, they return us as readers to a state of guiltless innocence in a world that is free from sin.

We talked a little last week about how Henry is an inverted Sherlock Holmes figure for this inverted murder mystery. We also talked about how his murder is motivated more by aesthetics than by ethics. Henry seems to kill Bunny mostly because Bunny offends him aesthetically. So if our Sherlock is also our murderer, how can we ever get back to that blameless, sinless state?

Let’s talk!

In this section, I’ve collected stray thoughts and questions I have about chapters 6 and 7 of The Secret History. You can use them as a guide for your own conversation in our comments section, or in your own community. Or start off with your own questions! Please just mark your spoilers and be nice to each other.

  1. For your mood listening pleasure, our commenter Antonio Graniero has put together the definitive Secret History playlist. Enjoy!
  2. In Book I, Henry and Bunny and Richard were the only classics kids who had discernible personalities, while Charles and Francis and Camilla sorted of floated amorphously in the background in a cloud of wealth and literary references. Here in Book II, though, with the shock and clarity of guilt, they’re beginning to emerge as distinct individuals with distinct flaws. Charles drinks, Francis picks up straight boys and fusses over the state of his car, and Camilla has dark secrets.
  3. Richard’s description of his hookup with Francis is overwhelmingly more enthusiastic than his description of his hookup with poor Mona Beale. Richard is secretly in love with Francis, no?
  4. Julian, meanwhile, has almost disappeared from the narrative after appearing to be so central to everything at the beginning of Book I. Where did he go? Why does he vanish so thoroughly?
  5. Richard spends some time in these two chapters maintaining that he not only feels guilty about murdering Bunny but also misses him as a human being. I believe him about the first but not the second. You?
  6. For some reason, Hampden as a name sounds incorrect in some fundamental way, as though it should be either Hampton or Hamden. What is so linguistically baffling about it?
  7. Francis considers Gucci vulgar but Henry thinks it’s “rather grand.” What the fuck is Henry’s taste?

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk, and meet us back here next week to discuss everything from chapter 8 through the epilogue. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter!