Novel: The Likeness by Tana French

Tana French’s In the Woods was such a compelling read I wasn’t ready for it to end—so I ran out and bought the sequel. The Likeness (2008) manages somehow to be even better, while also being more noticeably flawed. It’s a testament to French’s gripping command of character and place that, even as I noticed the flaws, I didn’t care; I was simply too invested in the scenario and its mysteries.

The Likeness features Detective Cassie Maddox, a supporting character from In the Woods, promoted to the spotlight for this new case. In the wake of the previous novel’s events, Cassie has been banished to a lower-pressure department, but she’s about to be called back to service by the Dublin murder squad. A dead body is discovered in an abandoned cottage in the small town of Glenskehy, and the murdered woman looks exactly like Cassie, a veritable doppelgänger. Even weirder, the woman’s identification lists her name as “Lexie Madison”—which was one of Cassie’s aliases from a years-ago stint as an undercover detective. Cassie’s old boss, Frank Mackey, sees an irresistable opportunity for an epic deep-cover operation. Leveraging Cassie’s likeness and play-acting experience, he will “resurrect” Lexie to enable her to investigate her own murder. Cassie is reluctant to involve herself, but once she does, she finds the immersive role-playing experience addictive. Not only that, but Lexie’s circle of friends are so refreshing to her that she starts to fall for them and their lifestyle—which is hugely problematic, given they are the most likely suspects for Lexie’s murder.

The Likeness gets great mileage from its tantalizing concept, even as it bends heaven and earth to line up the scenario to make that concept even possible. The logistics of the early chapters, while noticeably convoluted, are masked well enough by French’s aplomb for intrigue, character insight, and clever foreshadowing. It doesn’t hurt that Cassie, the best character from In the Woods, is a wonderful protagonist with a full book of goodwill behind her. Once the operation is in motion, the mystery unfolds as a neat form of group character study, as Cassie gets to know her four peculiar housemates while gathering clues, uncovering evidence, and developing theories about her cover identity’s demise. The characters are great individually, but fascinating as a group, and the psychological ramifications of the operation on them—and even more so on Cassie—lend emotional weight to the investigation. That carried me through when, late in the novel, the truth comes out in something of an unlikely expositional conversation that in other hands might have been distractingly disappointing. But by then, the journey had been so satisfying that I was able to forgive a less artful resolution.

An odd reading experience, in some ways: this one starts and ends rather awkwardly, but the bulk of it so compelling that my misgivings were ultimately outweighed. This series definitely has its hooks in me.

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