Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Likeness, by Tana French

Tana French’s second novel, The Likeness (2008), depends on the premise that one person can successfully, or almost successfully, pretend to be someone else. In this case, we have the detective Cassie Maddox, an important character in French’s first novel, In the Woods (2007). When a graduate student in English at Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland, is found stabbed to death in the ruins of an old farm cottage, police undertake an investigation to determine who murdered her and why. Coincidentally, the murder victim, Alexie Madison, is identical in appearance to Cassie (this coincidence, on which the entire novel depends, is difficult to swallow). Alexie lived with four friends in an old mansion outside of town. Rather than tell them that their housemate is dead (they are immediately identified as suspects in the crime) detectives send Cassie in undercover to take over the identity of Alexie Madison.  The hope is that she can discover who committed the crime.

The novel thus poses a curious question: can one person who looks exactly like another person of an entirely different background and history pretend to be that person? The novel assumes that this kind of impersonation is possible. I don't believe it. When Cassie appears at the mansion after having supposedly spent a week in the hospital recovering from the stabbing, her friends appear to be glad to see her. They assume slight differences in her behavior are the result of trauma and amnesia suffered in the crime. Over a period of six weeks one of them becomes suspicious. Cassie is not the only person in the novel who assumes alternative personalities.

French writes well. But her plot is overdeveloped, and she fails to explain away occasional false leads. The revelation of the true murderer is a letdown.  The dénouement of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), which French has identified as an influence on her second novel, was also a letdown. As in her first novel, an individual with a psychopathic personality plays an important role.  Once again, a police detective becomes psychologically over-involved with the crime under investigation.

When Cassie Maddox determines who committed the crime, she doesn't tell her colleagues. Rather, she allows someone else to take the blame—someone who is already dead and who therefore can’t be arrested. The true culprit and the housemates who protect him aren’t prosecuted. This is supposed to compensate for the guilt Cassie feels for having taken advantage of the housemates. It's not enough for me.

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