I’ve been a big Tana French fan for a few years now, and when I had some credits available on Audible, I spent one on an audiobook of “The Likeness”, which is #2 in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I’d enjoyed the first Dublin Murder Squad novel, “In the Woods”, and had jumped around to read #3 and #4, “Faithful Place” and “Broken Harbor” – both of which I also really liked. French is an engaging author, and writes complex, flawed characters in an easy to read, conversational tone. Her works are set in Ireland, as the series name would imply, and are as much glimpses into a country and a culture as they are tense, suspenseful thrillers. I can’t remember how many of her novels are written in first-person, but “The Likeness” is, for sure. Cassie Maddox, the main character, is a female detective whom we first met in “In the Woods”. Currently somewhat dissatisfied with her work in domestic violence, she is recruited to return to her roots as an undercover officer – investigating the murder of a young woman who also happens to be her doppelganger. Physically identical, the victim has also adopted the name that Cassie herself used as an undercover officer – Lexie Madison – an identity that is long gone.
How is it possible someone could be her dead ringer and also adopt Cassie’s previous identity? At the coaxing of Frank Massey, a cop who is also a recurring character in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Cassie is quickly immersed in Lexie Madison, and leaves behind her lover, also a cop, to drop undercover into Lexie’s life and former home, a history-laden mansion occupied by a quartet of eccentric university students. However, the case soon proves very difficult for Cassie, who finds it almost impossible to detach herself emotionally from Lexie and her new roommates. Intrigued and enchanted by their quirks, their isolation and their bonds to one another, as well as by the history of the gothic mansion, Cassie’s grasp on her identity begins to waver, as does her commitment to her job.
French is skilled at creating characters that resonate and speak with a genuine voice – but she is equally capable of creating characters that are irritating and unlikeable because of their flaws. With the housemates, I felt as though she was trying for a group reminiscent of the Greek scholars of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” – intellectuals, old souls, perhaps supernaturally so, hearkening back to a deep, rich, meaningful history. Excluded and bonded tightly to each other for mysterious and fascinating reasons. But unfortunately they just didn’t interest me. Their eccentricity was forced. Embroidery and arch intellectual wit and adoration of antiques – but I couldn’t tell the difference between any of the male housemates, except that Daniel was written almost as a pale echo of Henry in “The Secret History”. They seemed pretentious and pedantic and one-dimensional.
French sketches out an explanation that Cassie’s attraction to the house and the housemates is balm to a soul that has been wary and detached, without family, finding pain in most interpersonal relationships. She wants us to recognize why and how Cassie falls for them. Readers see her hypnotism with them unfold slowly, almost agonizingly, and here is where the book fell far short for me. The story bogs down with this and the pace lags; I COULDN’T understand why she was so absorbed in them, because I simply didn’t find them interesting or unique. When Cassie begins to turn off her undercover microphone at crucial times, and to empathize, to feel that she is one of these odd and essentially unlikeable housemates, I just rolled my eyes. It became incredibly frustrating to witness her flaws and failures. It felt false, as though she is all too willing to turn her back on her boyfriend, her career, the life she has built for herself, for a flimsy fantasy.
I love that French makes me think – always wondering and never quite discounting the most unbelievable or unexpected explanation. I always get to a point in her books where I begin to think that the only possible solution is the unexplainable, the supernatural, the internal world. Or the most unexpected – you can’t ever rule out that the main character themselves are somehow to blame. They are tricky and unexpected and untrustworthy, which I generally like about French. I will read “The Trespasser”, her most recent. But my final recommendation on “The Likeness” – pick up another of her books if you want the full Tana French experience – and if you want the gothic assimilation experience, go for Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” instead.