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Mystery Review: The Likeness, Tana French (2008)

But give me more credit than that. Someone else may have dealt the hand, but I picked it up off the table, I played every card, and I had my reasons. - Tana French, The Likeness

I'll have to get one thing out of the way here: using doppelgängers automatically strains credulity. I say this as someone who still dearly loves A Tale of Two Cities. But, you do start to run up against S.S. Van Dine's rules whenever twins or twin-like humans start to appear.

That aside, I like many things about The Likeness, but I do think it's a weaker book than In the Woods, or some of her later installments.

A quick overview: The Likeness revisits a few of the characters from In the Woods, primarily Detective Cassie Maddox. Although Cassie has moved out of the Murder Squad and into the Domestic Violence unit, the book kicks off with her being called to the scene of a murder. Why? Because Cassie looks exactly like the murder victim. And the murder victim had been living under a former false identity, Lexie Madison, that Cassie had used as an undercover detective.

Cassie agrees to go back undercover, pretending to be the other fake Lexie Madison and investigate the murder of the person who stole her fake identity. An intensive training week follows (queue up the Mr. Miyagi training sequence), with Cassie learning how to imitate the other Lexie from iPhone videos.

She's then dropped back into a tightly knit group - one of five PhD students, who are strangely closely knit. Living in Whitethorn House, inherited by one of them but now owned by all five, they keep themselves to themselves, not mixing with other students or the local villagers. Cassie then navigates the tightrope of acting like the other Lexie while investigating the other Lexie's murder ... and her own relationship with Sam O'Neill, strained while she's undercover.

The mystery itself is fairly slow-moving - Cassie spends a lot of time just with the group of students: cooking, writing, playing games, drinking. Considering that this group only spends time with each other, it takes a startlingly long amount of time for anyone to suspect that something might be off with Lexie since she came back from hospital. The final reveal of the murderer isn't that surprising, but then, it never felt like finding the murderer was really the point - The Likeness is a book about friendship and identity, about ties that bind us perhaps more closely than they should and what happens when these start to unravel. As French said in an interview: "Great friendships are incredibly powerful, passionate things and I think it's explored less in fiction than the danger that might come in romantic or family relationships." (And friendship, the overwhelming nature and danger that can be inherent in close friendships - is a theme that French will continue to explore more deeply in her future books.)

As I said: there are many things I like about this book. I love the dreamy, hazy quality of Cassie's remembrance of the otherworldly Whitethorn House and the person she was able to pretend to be for a few short weeks. French's writing is spectacular, and she shifts voices so that Cassie feels specific and different from her other narrators. Still - the mystery itself is too weak, Cassie's ability to step into another shoes with almost no hitches is too unbelievable, and the book overall was, to my tastes, too heavily inspired by Donna Tartt's The Secret History. It's a very good book - just not up to the standard of some of French's others.

Rating: 3 1/2 Sherlocks with a Tey for style. Pairs well with onion soup and fresh out of the oven Irish soda bread.

Up next week - French's next book, Faithful Place. Haven't read this one yet, so have no idea what my opinion for next week will be! Let the adventure begin and happy reading!

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