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French, Tana - 'The Likeness'
Hardback: 560 pages (Aug. 2008) Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton ISBN: 0340924772

My first impression on seeing a copy of THE LIKENESS is that it is very long, an impression I retained on having finished it. It is by no means a bad book, just far too long for what turns out to be a predictable storyline.

The protagonist, Cassie Maddox, is a detective working in the domestic violence department of the Dublin police force. She was part of the investigating team in Tana French's previous novel, IN THE WOODS, a story that ended in an emotional mess - a fact of which we are frequently but obliquely reminded in the new book, which is a bit frustrating if, like me, you have read the earlier book but can't recall the exact details of how it turned out. In between the two novels, Cassie has left the murder squad and worked undercover for a while, but after being attacked with a knife by one of her targets, she next transferred to the boring (to her) world of domestic violence, which is where she is working, somewhat depressed and at a loose end, at the opening of THE LIKENESS.

Cassie's undercover life comes back to haunt her in an unusual way when her boyfriend Sam (still on the murder squad) and her old 'undercover' boss Frank, a Machiavellian-like but charming figure, contact her to tell her that a dead body has been found in a dilapidated cottage in a field in the countryside- the body is that of a girl who is identical to Cassie and who is calling herself Lexie Madison, one of Cassie's previous fabricated undercover identities.

The chief suspects in this intriguing murder case are the four students with whom "Lexie" lived, in a beautiful but dilapidated mansion near the murder scene. The police can find out nothing in the way of leads from this rather strange foursome, nor can they discover anything about the crime from investigating the dead girl's life. Soon Frank persuades the eager Cassie and reluctant Sam to agree to his plan for Cassie to adopt "Lexie's" identity, and to pretend that she was not killed but has been left in a coma, so she can "recover" and then infiltrate the dead girl's life.

The main part of the book concerns Cassie's experiences living with Daniel, Abby, Justin and Rafe, all PhD students at Trinity College, after her "recovery". It is a nice premise, but nothing truly original follows. The five lead a reclusive but intellectual lifestyle, travelling to the university library to study (or lecture) by day, reading or playing music by night, and in any spare time, renovating the house (lovingly, of course). Cassie gradually finds out more about the local village and why its residents hate the family who lived in the house, and becomes more involved in her alternative life than she is in her real existence.

Some of the plot has echoes of THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt and A FATAL INVERSION by Barbara Vine. All three books concern secretive groups of young people outside mainstream society who may or may not be responsible for a death. THE LIKENESS has the added dimensions of both the police infiltration into the closed group, and the mystery of the identity of the dead girl. Although there are a few twists in "Lexie's" real story, they are pretty obvious. For me, the main problem with THE LIKENESS is its extreme slowness: pages and pages dwell on great personal danger and emotional stress, but somehow the book never really delivers, getting bogged down amid many descriptions of idyllic domestic life and Cassie's gradual assimilation into the group of suspects due to her inner loneliness is not explored with much originality.

I found the ending predictable and a bit of a let-down. The "who is Lexie?" subplot is explained but does not provide insight either into the girl or into Cassie's identification with her, and the solution to the murder is both obvious and calls into question why certain characters behaved as they did during the course of the book. Although Cassie is presented as a tough, professional police detective, I find her internal life and her personal situation slightly too 'romantic novelish' to compensate for the length of this book, which would have been a fine little mystery at 250 pages, but is overblown at 550.

Read another review of THE LIKENESS.

Maxine Clarke, England
October 2008

Maxine blogs at Petrona.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 18/12/2011 20:30