The Likeness – Tana French

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Tana French writes many-layered psychological suspense novels that feature appealing (and appalling) characters, fluid prose and complex, imaginative and improbable plots. The Likeness, with a slightly unlikely core premise, is a stay-up-late que pasó that requires a large measure of the willing suspension of disbelief.

Cassie Maddox, a Dublin detective who is a repeat protagonist in French’s fiction, is pulled back into undercover work when a corpse is discovered in a tumbled-down “hunger cottage” in the countryside outside Dublin. The dead woman has Cassie’s exact face and goes by the fictional identity Cassie created (and has since retired) for her undercover work infiltrating universities in pursuit of drug dealers. The similarities are weird—and so is Cassie’s feeling about the idea of assuming the made-up life of a woman whose identity and death are unexplained.

She is lured back in, despite the misgivings of her serious boyfriend, a murder detective who has an impressive solve rate, the lead detective on the case. Soon enough her diabolical former boss from undercover is co-director of the homicide team. Cassie moves into an old Irish estate house with four roommates, assuming the identity of Lexie Madison, with a story about being stabbed, falling into a coma, nearly dying, and developing amnesia. She pulls it off and is in place to find out what really happened and who killed the mysterious “Lexie.”

Here’s where you might phone up Tana French and say “What?” How does a cop fool longtime roommates who live in close daily proximity and emotional intimacy and who have heard (and maybe seen) that their real roommate is dead? Why does Cassie take such an improbable assignment and almost immediately fall under the spell of the victim’s odd living arrangements? And when does a professional detective withhold critical evidence from her superiors for no defensible reason?  

But pretend none of this matters and you can enjoy the marvelous prose. There is a lot of it. The novel is well over 400 pages and, despite the gorgeous writing, could have been a lot shorter. There is enough introspection to fill two novels—just sayin’. It’s pretty good but maybe not important enough to earn that amount of ink, paper and reading time.

Okay, what happens: Cassie is drawn into the emotional environment of the house—the shared domicile of a bunch of PhD-candidate eccentrics who have no TV, home Internet connection or PCs (they work online on campus), or contact with hostile neighbors in the tiny village abutting the estate. The house is falling down and the five bond over shared renovation projects to clean it up. They play cards and board games by the fire at night and read, play musical instruments and restore the ancient herb garden. And, little-by-little, hairline cracks become visible fissures as Cassie apparently succeeds at impersonating the dead woman and begins to connect to the life at Whitethorn House.

The dangers of her situation intensify as she draws closer to understanding what might have happened to Lexie. Her own life starts to fray around the edges and her team in the Murder division digs up more and more information about Lexie, the four roommates, the threats and vandalism to the house, several possible villains antagonistic to the residents of Whitethorn House, and the complex web of relationships that set the stage for a bewildering homicide. If the maturity and basic mental health of these housemates weren’t significant questions, it might have been tougher to work out the rough details of the murder—or at least the rough details of the motive. I did stay up late to read it and it was good when I remembered to check my analytical brain at the door. Tana French is an amazing writer. The Likeness is a flawed but still engaging book.

The Likeness: A Novel   Tana French  –  Viking  2008


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