The Likeness by Tana French

I read Tana French’s debut, In The Woods, and thought it was one of the most innovative and gripping procedurals I’d ever come across.  Told first person by Detective Rob Ryan, it’s the story of a murder of a young girl in a Dublin suburb, and of the investigation by Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox.

The Likeness is a sequel of sorts.  It’s told by Cassie, who has left the murder squad and is now working domestic violence and dating another of the team from the first book, Detective Sam O’Neill.  She receives a frightened call from Sam one morning, asking if she’s alright, and asking her to meet him at a crime scene.  When she gets there, she’s greeted not just by Sam, but by Frank Mackey, her former boss when she worked undercover on a drug ring.  It’s not until she sees the body that she understands why they’ve called her there.  The dead girl looks exactly like her, and is carrying ID in the name of Lexie Madison, the alias Cassie and Frank constructed for the drug case.  Not only do they not know who killed this girl, they don’t know who she is.

Frank takes advantage of the fact that releasing photos of the dead girl to try and get an ID would lead to chaos in Cassie’s life to get Sam to postpone announcing the death and to just give out that the girl survived and is in a coma for a couple days while they dig for information.  He has more than that in mind, though.  With videos of Lexie and her close knit group of friends from her phone, and information garnered from statements of Lexie’s “known associates,” Frank wants Cassie to take on Lexie’s persona and slip into her life to solve her murder.

The fact of someone having a double, and that double turning up murdered in her own town, is a stretch.  But French handles it so deftly it is never an issue.  Cassie is a strong woman who has gone through a tragic mistake, and she’s eager to lose herself in a difficult case.  And Lexie Madison is a very difficult case.

The woman calling herself Lexie had been living with four other graduate students from Trinity in a tattered country house in a town outside Dublin.  The five were incredibly tight, closed off from others and content with themselves.  They moved between school and the house, not mixing with people in the town or the university.  Cassie spends a week with Frank, cramming to learn everything about Lexie, every like and dislike, every mannerism and inflection.  At the end of the week, “Lexie” is released from the hospital, and Frank and Sam bring her home to her friends at Whitethorn House.

The atmosphere of the world they’ve created at Whitethorn House is intoxicating.  It’s the English major’s dream of Utopia, of living in a big house in the country with like-minded friends, days and nights spent in reading, research, and discussion.  They cook together and work on fixing up the house, which was left to Daniel, one of the housemates.  Cassie is worried about passing as Lexie, but with the cover story that the coma left her with no memory of the attack, and possibly sketchy on other events before it, she has some leeway for mistakes.  Frank’s training was extensive, and she quickly falls into place as Lexie.  Lexie’s habit of nightly walks on her own give Cassie a time to call and check in with Sam and Frank, and she’s wired at all times so they can monitor what goes on in the house or at school.

Cassie soon learns the family dynamic of the house; Daniel is the father, Abby the mother, Justin and Rafe the brothers, and Lexie the little sister they needed to round out their family.  Having been orphaned at a young age and raised by a slightly distant aunt and uncle, Cassie basks in this tacked together family of friends.  She picks up information about Lexie and possible suspects in her murder, but instinctively keeps some back from Sam and Frank.

This was the second time I read this book, and after finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again a third time.  French fills the story with the atmosphere of a country garden on a summer’s day, lazing in the sun, insects buzzing in the distance.  You can lose yourself in it, just like Cassie loses herself in Whitethorn House.  The story progresses apace, but for much of the book it feels languid and thoughtful, as Cassie slides into Lexie’s life and routine.  It speeds at the end, as a cascade of events threatens the world Daniel has tried so hard to create.  The book is built on a theme of the mutability of identity, of the desire and ease to slip from one to another.  There are also elements about life in modern Ireland, even more interesting now that the Celtic Tiger has lost its teeth.  One of the rules of living in Whitethorn House is “No pasts,” but French shows that as hard as we may try, that’s an impossibility.


March 11, 2010. Tags: . Books.

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