Tag Archives: psychological suspense

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

The Chalk Girl – Carol O’Connell

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Every year, on the anniversary of a little girl’s suicide, someone draws a chalk figure–the outline of a small body–on the flagstones beneath the private school where she landed after a plunge from the roof. The school’s longtime caretaker leaves it there all day, cleaning the patio at nightfall. Phoebe Bledsoe, a descendent of the school’s founder, lives in a cottage on the grounds on New York’s Upper West Side, witnesses this annual reminder of a child nearly erased from memory and communes with her own ghosts. Chief among those haunts is her school friend Ernest who was strung up in a tree in Central Park, when Phoebe was eleven, and left to die.

As The Chalk Girl opens, a startling swarm of rats attacks tourists in Central Park, terrifying and eventually consuming an elderly school group leader. A small red-haired girl, who knows an astonishing amount about the anatomy and habits of rats, attaches herself to the group with open arms and a big smile but is grubby, filthy and rebuffed. Rats and red rain fall from the sky and the fairy child claims her uncle has turned himself into a tree. Carol O’Connell has created another Mallory mystery, full of weird goings on, distinctive characters and murky motives.

Kathy Mallory, the damaged runaway who was fostered and tamed by a beloved New York City detective, is the brilliant and somewhat lawless star of these books. She has become a homicide detective herself, a remarkably effective one. But she is a cold, efficient and unstable woman whose skills as a computer hacker and ability to psych out and intimidate bad guys solve cases even as they keep her colleagues at a distance. When bodies are discovered suspended from trees in burlap bags, Mallory (she refuses to let anybody call her by her first name) and her partner Riker set out to find the red-haired kid who may be a material witness to murder.

The Chalk Girl is just plain good. O’Connell doesn’t even give you time to fasten your seat belt before she hits the accelerator. It’s a wild ride but all a reader has to do is hang on. The events and characters are intense, surprising, funny and appallingly nasty. The grubby kid is a key and Mallory locates her, recognizing an unusual psychological pattern, Williams syndrome, immediately. As the child attaches herself to the aloof detective, more bodies are found in trees, old felonies seem to relate to the latest atrocities, the money trails of influence and extortion that devil city politics and preoccupy the wealthy are revealed and many suspects for numerous crimes surface. Throughout, the twisted character of Kathy Mallory keeps thing more than lively. Mallory could be the original model for the damaged heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–badly impaired emotions, high-functioning sleuthing, inspired and slightly scary tactics. 

It is tough to sort it out in advance of the big reveal at the close but, fortunately, you don’t have to. The incidents are so entertaining—a few in an appalling way—that the story plays out like a movie. Fierce and fearsome Mallory has a soft side which she shoves out of sight at every opportunity. A tiny child is traumatized by her own kidnapping but game to keep trusting strangers, sharing her immense but quirky scholarship and her exceptional musical ability with anyone who crosses her path. The clues and malevolence form a thicket as dense as Central Park’s wooded Ramble, where the tree people are found. And O’Connell has pulled off another gripping read with a partly likable but endlessly fascinating heroine who always dishes out far more than she takes—and does it with admirable style.

The Chalk Girl (A Mallory Novel)  Carol O’Connell | G. P. Putnam’s Sons  2011