Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Likeness by Tana French

I don’t for a second believe that we all have a double, as some people say. The one thing I know I share in common with Vladimir Nabokov is my intense dislike for the doppelganger theme, so it was odd – at first – that I chose this book to read. However, The Likeness was written by Tana French, who has shown me, and many others, that she knows how to spin a very good story, and a lyrically written one as well. For a book written by Tana French, I could suspend my dislike of and disbelief in doppelgangers.

The Likeness is French’s second novel, following In the Woods, which, like The Likeness, was also very well received, making French a new “favorite author” for many readers. Also like In the Woods, The Likeness takes place in and around Dublin, Ireland, and centers around a murder investigation.

Those who read In the Woods will already be acquainted with Cassie Maddox, this book’s narrator. (Sadly, Rob Ryan, the narrator of In the Woods, is no where to be found.) The former Murder Squad detective has spent the last six months in Domestic Violence (DV) attempting to recover from the nine months she spent posing as “Lexie Madison” while carrying out “Operation Vestal” and investigating a drug ring, nine months that culminated when she was stabbed.

French sets the plot of The Likeness in motion when Cassie gets a telephone call from her boyfriend, Sam O’Neill, who is still working in “Murder,” telling her she should come out to a certain crime scene right away. A puzzled Cassie travels to the rural town of Glenskehy and an abandoned two-room cottage. There, she finds, not only the murder victim, but Frank Mackey, her acerbic, wisecracking boss, who is also something of a true Irish charmer, and the man with whom Cassie worked on the above-mentioned “Operation Vestal.”

Cassie is startled by the appearance of the victim, who died of four stab wounds. She looks enough like Cassie to be her twin. And even more startling, her identification says her name was “Lexie Madison.” “Lexie Madison,” however, was a creation of Frank’s and Cassie’s. No one ever believed she was real, and certainly no one ever expected Cassie’s double to show up whatever her name might be. Lexie Madison, however, was a registered graduate student in English Literature at Trinity College, and she lived with four fellow students in a dilapidated mansion known as Whitethorn House, near the village.

The four students, all PhD candidates, who shared Whitethorn House with Lexie – the cold and paternal Daniel, the handsome Rafe, the eccentric Abby, who has a love of antique dolls, and the nervous Justin – swear they were all together the night Lexie was attacked, and none of them, so they say, left the house. Only Lexie, who was in the habit of taking a nightly walk.

Because Lexie was a ringer for Cassie, Frank names the investigation, “Operation Mirror,” and remains convinced that one of the four students still living at Whitethorn House is guilty of murdering Lexie. Since the public does not yet know that Lexie died, Frank, over the objections of Sam, convinces Cassie to go undercover once again – as Lexie. Frank plans on releasing the news that Lexie has “survived” the attack and recovered from the coma she was in. Then he’ll send Cassie – as Lexie – back “home” to Whitethorn House in order to learn more about the four surviving roommates, and hopefully to determine which one, or ones, killed “Lexi.” A bandage over “Lexie’s” “stab wound” will conceal a microphone that will enable Frank to monitor everything that goes on.

We know something is going to go horribly wrong, of course. For one thing, while Cassie can learn Lexie’s habits, like taking the nightly walk, other things, like Lexie’s distaste for onions, will prove impossible for her to learn. This, of course, ratchets up the suspense, as mistakes will inevitably be made, and Cassie will have to try to explain them and remain believable to the housemates.

Inside Whitethorn House, Cassie – now “Lexie” – learns that the roommates live a strange, though rather idyllic life that takes little notice of the outside world. In fact, the roommates will remind many readers of Donna Tartt’s bestseller, The Secret History in which college students, who may be responsible for a murder, make a secret pact, each one protecting the others as well as himself. But questions remain. What secret really holds the residents of Whitethorn House together? Why do the villagers despise them so? What really happened the night Lexie was killed? And when will the guilty party make his/her move?

Danger, of course, and chinks in the integrity of “Operation Mirror,” lurk around every corner as Cassie, who at heart, is very lonely, responds to the warmth and affection offered her at Whitethorn and is drawn further and further into the life of the woman who was “Lexie Madison.”

The Likeness isn’t a typical mystery. For one thing, French takes her time setting things up. She’s far more concerned with character development than in giving us a “connect-the-dots” mystery to solve or even a “big twist” to shock us. Some of what happens in this book is predictable and conventional, but certainly not all of it. The leisurely pace of the set up allows the reader to be pulled into Cassie’s world, and French’s writing is good enough to keep most readers there until the end of the story.

The bulk of the book concerns Cassie’s experiences at Whitethorn House with Daniel, Abby, Justin, and Rafe. During this section, I think the book tends to bog down in detail just a little. I found Cassie’s core loneliness interesting, and I applaud French for exploring it, but I can read only so many descriptions of idyllic domestic life in a mystery before I want to return to the main plot and move along toward its resolution. And, speaking of the resolution, while French did deliver on the “Who is Lexie” mystery, that solution, for me, was pretty obvious by the time we reached the end of the book. To French’s credit, she gives us more emotional closure at the end of this book than she did in In the Woods, while still avoiding tying everything up in a neat and tidy package.

I enjoyed reading The Likeness even though I felt, at times, that French was asking her readers to suspend their disbelief a little too often. In reality, I don’t think Cassie could fool four people who knew “Lexi” intimately for even one entire day; I don’t think “Lexi” could have enrolled at Trinity; and I don’t think any trained undercover detective worth her salt would conceal evidence from her superiors. I can accept one implausible – the fact that “Lexi” looked just like Cassie – but I have trouble accepting a whole string of them. And what about Daniel? (To say more would be to give you a spoiler, but if you read the book, you’ll know what I mean.) I understand that French is exploring loneliness and the bonds of friendship, and that she’s using the mystery of “Lexi Madison” to do so, but still, mystery readers are going to be French’s primary readers, and mystery readers need for French to devote as much care to the actual mystery of the book as she does to the characters involved in that mystery’s resolution. The fact that French doesn’t seem to care about the mystery as much as her characters is this book’s big flaw.

The writing in The Likeness is gorgeous, though, and it’s the writing that kept me reading. However, there were times when even that let me down. The dialogue sometimes got a little too trendy for my taste, and the roommates and Cassie indulged in ambiguous conversations that hinted at long-buried secrets one too many times. And, the book is simply too long for one that resolves so conventionally. I know, The Secret History (Tartt) was longer, and I loved that book, but that book was far less conventional than this one is. All in all, I think I liked In the Woods more than The Likeness. I found it a darker, more lyrical book than The Likeness, and a lot more believable, and I am very attracted to dark, lyrical books.

Still, a lot of people loved reading The Likeness. If you can accept a book whose plot is built on several “implausibles,” and if you don’t mind a very slow moving mystery, you might enjoy reading The Likeness, too. I know I will keep reading Tana French.


Recommended: To readers who like their mysteries long and rather slow. This definitely isn’t a fast paced thriller, nor does it pretend to be one. The plot resolution is rather predictable, but there is much delving into character along the way.

Note: It’s not necessary to have read In the Woods prior to reading The Likeness. French orients the reader well enough to key events that happened in the previous book.

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