Title: The Likeness
Author: Tana French
No. of Pages: 512
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Bottom Line: Absolutely stellar follow-up to In the Woods that solidly cements Ms. French’s reputation as a superb mystery writer.
“Six months after the events of In the Woods, Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover. She’s transferred out of the murder squad and started a relationship with Detective Sam O’Neill, but she’s too badly shaken to make a commitment to him or to her career. Then Sam calls her to the scene of his new case: a young woman found stabbed to death in a small town outside Dublin. The dead girl’s ID says her name is Lexie Madison, the identity Cassie used years ago as an undercover detective, and she looks exactly like Cassie.With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie’s real identity, Cassie’s old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn’t fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim’s identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.As she is drawn into Lexie’s world, Cassie realizes that the girl’s secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie’s growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk. Another gripping psychological thriller featuring the headstrong protagonist weave come to love, from an author who has proven that she can deliver.”
Thoughts: While Tana French’s second novel is a follow-up to her first and is now part of a series, in reality The Likeness is a stand-alone novel that just so happens to reference a previous case and star a familiar character. Even better, even though her debut novel was a rousing success with its creepy, other-worldly elements, its bleakness, and lack of definitive black-and-white scenarios, the only thing that Ms. French duplicates – other than the characters and references to the previous case – is the lack of clear definitions between good and bad/ black and white. There is something refreshingly familiar but off-kilter about the entire novel that highlights the fact that Ms. French prefers the psychological torments to physiological ones. Indeed, the indistinctness previously mentioned – due in large part because of the mental games being played by each of the characters – is not only familiar and oh-so-realistic, it plays a crucial role throughout The Likeness, as Cassie is torn between her emotions and her common sense once in the throes of her latest case.
While the novel revolves around solving a murder mystery, there is something extraordinarily cozy and inviting about the setting and about Lexie’s friends. So much so that it actually becomes quite easy to forget that Cassie is supposed to solve Lexie’s murder and uncover her true identity. Whitethorn House itself, with its rundown, rustic, historic charm, takes on a life of its own while the close camaraderie of the house’s inhabitants makes a reader feel as if a reader is part of this eclectic and accepting group. The backdrop and the friendships create a charming lightheartedness within the story that beguiles readers.
The fact that not all is as carefree and jolly as it appears should not surprise a reader, and yet that is exactly what happens. The characters and the setting are so compelling that one is torn between wanting the story to move forward versus maintaining the happy-go-lucky attitude and banter that makes up a Cassie’s growing friendship with Lexie’s housemates. One simultaneously wants to find out the truth and yet not resolve the mystery because there are shadows and unhappy endings that this group of students does not deserve. In many ways, the reader’s own feelings mirror Cassie’s own confusion and emotional involvement.
Psychologically, there is something absolutely fascinating about the entire premise of The Likeness that sets this second novel apart from Ms. French’s first. The idea of not only finding one’s doppelganger, but also of having to solve the murder of said doppelganger is ultimately thrilling and highly traumatic. Ms. French takes this shock one step further by adding the mental strain of undercover detective work. It quickly becomes apparent why Cassie begins to buckle under the strain, as both having to pretend to be someone else and deal with the ramifications of seeing her dead face in the form of Lexie would be enough to push to the brink even the strongest of detectives. The fact that Cassie’s tough façade was in a state of disrepair prior to this latest case is an additional stressor but one that makes it so easy to relate to Cassie.
One might think it is tough to follow up on such a stellar debut novel. However, with her second book, Ms. French once again showcases her ability to create a taut and highly enjoyable murder mystery that is just as fascinating as her first, if not more so. Favoring the psychology behind the crimes rather than the mechanics of them, combined with rapid-fire dialogue and smart characters, The Likeness moves beyond the familiar detective procedural and into a grittier, more realistic, and ultimately more engaging whodunit.