Last year, my mystery book club (we read mysteries, rather than being shrouded in mystery ourselves) read Tana French’s In the Woods. I admit that I was a bit prejudiced against it from the beginning, since it’s a) about a child’s murder, b) contemporary, and c) popular. But it pulled me in, suckered me, made me love it. French’s prose is very good, her plotting is excellent, and her sense for human relationships — the places in our psychology that make us long for connection and then screw that connection all to hell — is absolutely unerring. I had one or two reservations about In the Woods, but I had the strong feeling that those might be debut-novel problems, so I put her second novel on my TBR.
The Likeness begins with an absolutely preposterous premise — right up front! It doesn’t spring anything on you! — and builds an amazing mystery-thriller out of it. For this book, French brings back detective Cassie Maddox, who was one of the partners who solved the case in In the Woods. This time, the novel is from her point of view, as she goes undercover to solve the murder of Lexie Madison. The catch? Lexie Madison isn’t — or wasn’t — a real person; she was a former undercover identity of Cassie’s. Now, she’s shown up as a real dead body, and she looks as if she could be Cassie’s identical twin. (Cassie was an only child.) Cassie steps into Lexie’s life (only who is she really?) in the tight-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, to try to find out where all the tangled threads may lead.
You see what I mean, right? The doppelgänger thing is right out of Wilkie Collins or somewhere; I expected mesmerism next; and at first, the group of housemates, all postgrad students at Trinity College in Dublin, leaned a little too heavily on Donna Tartt. But French is too talented to let it stay that way. Cassie’s fierce love of the freedom of undercover work, and the fuse that lights in her; the interweaving personalities of the four housemates; the undercurrent of Lexie’s life and the actions leading to her death — all this is done with vividness and delicacy. French lets us see the beauty of those friendships, but also the way people can know each other so well that they drown each other. I mentioned that she’s good at the fragility of human relationships, and this book reinforces that in more ways than one.
This was a very satisfying mystery, beautifully written and breathlessly suspenseful. It was dark, but not because the detective was hopelessly depressed (*cough* Henning Mankell *cough*). To my own surprise, I think I’ve found a new favorite mystery author, huzzah!