Sunday, July 5, 2009

What if someone killed your double?

Thrillers, mysteries, and whodunits are the perfect reads during cold and rainy days. And I was fortunate enough that I finished Tana French's excellent novel, The Likeness, during a rainy weekend. If you've a taste for non-formulaic mysteries, then go get yourself a copy of French's second novel. I promise you that it's very satisfying.

French once again focuses on Detective Cassie Maddox, a character in her brilliant debut, In the Woods. In The Likeness, Cassie has now been transferred to the Domestic Violence department of Ireland's police force. One day she gets summoned to a murder scene and discovers that the victim has an eerie resemblance to her and that she's going by the name of Lexie Madison, a graduate student in Trinity. Several years before, it was Cassie who invented Lexie Madison when she went undercover in an Irish university, and now she discovers that someone has assumed this made-up identity, someone who looks like Cassie in every single way. Her superior, not wanting to waste this unique opportunity to solve the murder, decides to have Cassie once again resume the identity of Lexie and assimilate herself in Lexie's world. They cover up the murder scene, informing people that Lexie survived the incident and just came out of a coma. So for more than a month, Cassie finds herself amid Lexie's closest friends -- the enigmatic Daniel, the handsome Rafe, the sensitive Abby, and the cheery Justin -- who all live in Daniel's ancestral house. All this just to seek answers to the case: Who really was this girl? Who killed her? Was it one of her friends?

One might wonder whether French has a background on the police force and psychology. She writes detailed sentences about each police procedural and provides clear insights on all her characters' personalities. No minor detail is spared in the book's lengthy 460 pages. The Likeness doesn't read like your typical thriller, where each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and most characters end up with cardboard-like personalities. Consider this beautifully written and instrospective paragraph about Cassie's thoughts on why people eventually confess:
Every detective, in all the world, knows that this is our best weapon: your heart's desire. Now that thumbscrews and red-hot pincers are off the menu, there's no way we can force anyone to confess to murder, lead us to the body, give up a loved one or rat out a crime lord, but still people do it all the time. They do it because there's something they want more than safety: a clear conscience, a chance to brag, an end to the tension, a fresh start, you name it and we'll find it. If we can just figure out what you want -- secretly, hidden so deep you may never have glimpsed it yourself -- and dangle it in front of you, you'll give us anything we ask for in exchange.
Clearly, French takes her time to develop her characters with believable personalities, and it pays off. The overall feeling one gets from reading her narrative is that The Likeness feels tight. Not a chapter, even though it doesn't seem to add to the "action" of the story, is out of place. Nevertheless, the usual devices of mysteries are here -- the red herrings, the twists, the closed murder room atmosphere, but French doesn't give them to the reader in one catch-all chapter. She takes you by the hand and lets you complete the puzzle for yourself. Like in her first novel, there's no complete picture here. Depending on your insight, you have untangled a mystery or you're left with more questions. Either way, you end up with a masterful exploration of how seemingly ordinary individuals can be driven to commit something unspeakable as murder.

Somehow, The Likeness reminded me of another novel: Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Both focus on a close circle of friends in an academic scenario and center on the death of one of them. While The Secret History can be a bit pedantic for some, French's novel is very accessible and engaging. Having just written two well-received novels, French is clearly on her way to becoming a master in this genre.

Read this book if:
  1. You're partial to murders involving a knife.
  2. You've always thought that you have a double somewhere.
  3. You think your friends would be the death of you.


Anonymous said...

OOH OOH - #3! #3!

Great review... I like the sounds of this book

Peter S. said...

Hi Sheila! It is! Read her first novel too -- In the Woods.