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Friday, April 03, 2009

French's Sophomore Novel Leaves Freshman Attempt Somewhere Back In the Woods

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Question: How many sophomore novels can you think of that outshine their predecessors? Answer: Off the top of my head, I can think of only one: The Likeness by Tana French. Maybe I could come up with more if it wasn't so late, my baby wasn't so awake (she's bouncing around in her exersaucer, bright-eyed and ready to party) and I had less of a headache, but I just have to say: While French's first thriller (In the Woods) intrigued me, her second blew me clean away. I didn't read it so much as I devoured it. If you, like me, prefer psychological thrills as a main course with a little police procedural on the side then, honey, grab a spoon. This one's one heckuva sumptuous feast.

The Likeness picks up six months after In the Woods ends. Still reeling from the disastrous Operation Vestral, Detective Cassie Maddox has transferred from the Dublin police's murder squad to its domestic violence department. The job's not as thrilling, but at least its predictable. Surprisingly, it's nice, boring Sam who throws her a curveball. Sam is not just Cassie's boyfriend, but he's also a detective with her old department. When he demands, in a decidedly shaky voice, for her to meet him in the small town of Glenskehy, she can tell something's wrong. It's a new case, and this one's personal. It doesn't take her long to figure out why: the victim sports a very familiar face - Cassie's own. Cassie's an only child, with no really close relatives, so the similarity in looks is bizarre, as is the woman's identity: her driver's license declares her to be Lexie Madison. The only problem with that is that Lexie's not a real person, but an identity Cassie and her boss made up when Cassie worked undercover. Questions abound in the odd case - who is this dead woman, really? Why was she living under an assumed name? And, most importantly, who stabbed her then left her to die in a crumbling cottage in the woods?

The initial investigation turns up little. Lexie lived with a group of friends in Whitethorn House, an old manor one of her roommates inherited. There's something off about the group, but none of the flatmates are talking. Glenskehy hasn't exactly pulled out the Welcome mat for the rich kids in the "Big House," which gives the police a whole town of suspects. With no solid leads, Cassie's boss, Frank Mackey, decides to think outside of the box. His brilliant plan? Keep Lexie's death a secret, let Cassie assume her identity and work the investigation from the inside. It's risky. Potentially life-threatening. In fact, the plan is utterly insane. Sam's dead set against it, but Cassie can already feel the adrenaline pumping through her. She's missed the Murder squad, so she agrees to infiltrate Lexie's life in order to find her killer.

From the moment Cassie steps inside Whitethorn House, she finds herself in the bosom of a tight-knit family. Lexie and her roommates had been oddly insular, almost shunning the outside world to spend their time exclusively with each other. With Lexie safely back in the fold, feigning amnesia, they go back to their routine of studying, playing cards, cooking dinner for each other, working on home improvements and carefully avoiding any mention of their pasts or Lexie's stabbing. Their devotion to one another astounds Cassie, who's envious of Lexie's inclusion in this ragtag family. Still, someone wanted her dead, and Cassie's determined to find out who that someone is - be it a roommate; a grudge-holding local yokel; or an ex con who mistook Lexie for Cassie. As Cassie struggles to hold on to her objectivity, she finds herself getting too close, but is it close enough to catch the killer? And, exactly how much will she have to put on the line to crack the case? The answer is: everything.

What I love about The Likeness is that's it's 3/4 psychological thriller and only 1/4 police procedural. This is probably why I liked it better than In the Woods, which is basically the opposite. Even though the book focuses mainly on character, it maintains a taut, original plot (although a similar situation popped up on a episode of Life on Mars I just watched, which brings me to another question: Why do tv bigwigs cancel good shows like Mars and keep crap life Knight Rider? Seriously!) Still, it's the cast, with their deep and complex psyches, that pulls you in. French's real talent is bringing her characters to life, making them so authentic that you really wouldn't be surprised if they leapt right out of the book and joined you for dinner. It's impossible not to care about these people, impossible not to become absorbed in their lives, impossible to stop reading until you know their fates.

As always, I have a few issues with the book. It's a bit far-fetched (can two complete strangers really look enough alike to fool their closest friends?), it mentions Rob Ryan only briefly (boo hoo - I still want to know what really happened to his friends in the woods), and French can't seem to write a sentence that doesn't include the F word. All in all, though, The Likeness is a fast-paced, totally riveting, thrill ride. What else can I say? I loved it.

Grade: A


  1. Wow, Susan, you are making me want to drop what I'm reading and rush out to buy this book! I also really enjoyed In the Woods, so I'm looking forward to this one. Loved your review!

  2. I really need to read this book!

  3. Am just skimming your post as I've just recently started this. I've heard others say it was better than the first, which is always a good sign! Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  4. I am still waiting to read this one after reading In The Woods last year and loving it. I will have to get to it!


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