I’m continuing my Tana French obsession, because I’m finding crime drama written with a focus on deep characterization really fascinating. French is a lyrical writer (my Irish husband says this is obviously because she’s Irish – you may disagree out of his earshot) and her prose often borders on poetry in its pacing and description. The New York Times review called it rambling, but they also misreported some key plot points in their opening paragraph, so there is only so much you can take seriously in their review. Still, to readers used to the greater brevity and plot-based action of most crime fiction, I could see that the amount of time spent in developing character could be frustrating. But it is the personalities that move the plot and anyone drawn to psychology will appreciate the deep and full characters in French’s writing.
The Likeness picks up and fills in the final chapter of French’s first Dublin Murder Squad novel In The Woods, filling in details that Rob reports in a single paragraph about what happens in the next two years of Cassie Maddox’s life. The novel opens when Sam, still working in Murder, is called to the scene of the stabbed body of a woman who has been mysteriously posing as Cassie’s undercover persona Lexie Madison. This is a doppelgänger novel with a twist; the doubles cannot possibly have been in the same place at the same time, because one is the corpse and one is the cop.
Cassie’s former Undercover boss Frank gets wind of the case and can’t resist setting up Cassie to go under cover as the murder victim to discover the crime. It’s an irresistible challenge for an undercover cop. It’s a really terrible idea in many ways; so many small details make up a person to their closest associates, so making potentially fatal mistakes is very easy, which is a large part of what drives the tension of the novel. But knowing full well that it’s a bad idea and that it will probably break her romance with the ever faithful good guy Sam, Cassie is talked into it anyway, because she can’t resist the thrill of it.
Cassie quickly becomes absorbed in the world of Lexie Madison, a graduate student living in a unbelievable Anglo-Irish mansion with four other students. But they’re more than friends – they are the family that Cassie has never really experienced. Her professionalism quickly falls to the background as she’s drawn into their fantastical world, where pasts are a forbidden topic of discussion, but the great authors still live on. Tension with the locals quickly springs up, adding intrigue into the central story question. Was it an insider? Outsider? And who? But even more importantly, why? So often in crime drama, the why is just a way of moving the plot forward, but in French’s novels, the why is the crime and the mystery.
There are some aspects of The Likeness that the reader just has to suspend disbelief for. Cassie having an unrelated doppelgänger is one of them, particularly given Cassie’s unusual French-Irish heritage. There are also a few leads that are never satisfactorily followed up on, which the author in me admires for mimicking life so thoroughly, but the reader wants satisfied. They are irrelevant to the central plot, but having been alluded to, its disappointing that my curiosity wasn’t satisfied. I put down the novel wanting even more detail, more understanding of the motivations and backgrounds of the characters, because that’s how real they are.
On the whole, though, this was a novel that I won’t soon forget. It is equally as powerful as In The Woods and, despite sharing a world and a protagonist, still managed to be its own animal. All its done is make me hungry for the next French novel, Faithful Place, which I may have to put off until I have two days to dedicate to the reading, because this was a tough one to put down.