Review of The Likeness, by Tana French


The Likeness has haunted me since I first read it almost four years ago & it’s been in my trinity of most moving mystery stories ever, along with Nicholas Freeling’s Gun Before Butter & P. D. James’s Innocent Blood. And it also belongs alongside Donna Tartt’s The Secret History & Tana French’s own later The Secret Place as the best books I’ve read about tragic student friendships. Each embodies the same moral & spiritual truth. In relationships love & good intentions are insufficient in themselves. Without absolute honesty & integrity, discord, betrayal, disintegration & ultimately disaster inevitably follow. Now I’ve read The Likeness through four times, most recently last month with the Kindle English Mystery reading group on Goodreads, & I hope I am finally ready to compose a review worthy a major classic.

Each read gave a different perspective, true but partial. Initially my focus was on the crime & the solution. Who killed the woman going under the name of Lexie Madison & why? We know that the name is false, because the narrator of the book is the Dublin police detective for whom this identity was created so she could work undercover as a student @ Trinity College Dublin to discover narcotics traffickers, an operation long since suspended. And that detective, Cassie Maddox, is an absolute dead-ringer for the murder victim who assumed her old identity. The current Lexie was enrolled as a graduate student in English @ TCD & shared Whitethorn House, a dilapidated country mansion dating from the period of the Ascendancy – I’ve never had a chance to use that term before – with four other grad students – Daniel, Abby, Rafe, & Justin – who are busily engaged in restoring the old place. Frank, the head of the police undercover squad, has the seemingly hare-brained scheme of pretending the victim is still alive & having Cassie impersonate her & take her place @ Whitethorn House; For some reviewers, these coincidences were totally unbelievable. Personally I’d no problems. As in Sophocles & Shakespeare, things happen that are extremely improbable in real life, but Tana French does an excellent job of slipping them by with just enough detail (like how an acquaintance of Cassie when undercover inadvertently put the impersonator onto the existence of Lexie’s persona) that we accept them. And we can see Tana French’s own experience as an actress in Cassie’s description of how she practised for the role of Lexie. As the story proceeds we are kept wondering whether Cassie the detective will avoid detection by the housemates, & who will turn out to be the villain who killed Lexie & why. I felt the solution a bit squalid but believable & Cassie immensely attractive & appealing.

About half a year later, whilst homebound with a health problem, I listened to The Likeness on CD. When a book merits a second reading, I concentrate on the characters & their relationships. Immediately after finishing The Likeness I”d read The Secret History & it was obvious that Tartt’s book was a major influence. Both feature a small group of university students who enjoy such a close & intense friendship that they operate virtually as one. Having once belonged to a similar group of friends, I totally understood how it would feel to be one of them. Daniel, in The Likeness, plays a parallel role to Henry in The Secret History. And both stories are narrated by an outsider who becomes accepted as a member of the group. But in The Likeness that outsider is a cop. In both stories the friends have a very high maintenance relationship, but they look after & respect each other with the care of racing car mechanics – co-ordinated as perfectly as an a cappella Glee flashmob, thinking each others thoughts, completing each others sentences, & living in each others pockets. Cassie, who was left in quite fragile condition @ the end of In the Woods & is now in a very tentative relationship with Sam, another detective who is supervising the investigation, finds herself fitting almost seamlessly into the persona of Lexie, & is taken as being her by the housemates. For the first time in her life Cassie feels completely accepted & loved. The most poignant moment occurs when Abby finds a still wearable party dress from the ‘30s. Cassie dons it & dances with Justin whilst Abby sings Andrews Sisters tunes from the period accompanied by Rafe on the piano. Cassie enjoys a condition of complete belonging. The two other times when she most closely identifies as a member of their community are in the melee punch-up when they pursue Naylor, the local village low-life who throws a brick through their window, & that wild drunken party when she finds herself kissing Daniel. That was a moment where Tana French sacrificed consistency of character for the sake of plot. (view spoiler) And Daniel behaves out of character as well afterwards, @ what Aristotle would have called the anagnoresis. (view spoiler)

As I’ve come since to appreciate The Likeness as a tragedy, it’s obvious that Whitethorn House was doomed to destruction. Like Aeschylus’ house of Atreus, it is haunted by the ghosts of dead children, & to them add the ghost of Lexie, which Cassie can almost perceive. In the final episodes Cassie seems a very unattractive person, judgemental, vindictive, & totally legalistic, almost as odious as ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy in Broken Harbour or Antoinette Conway in The Secret Place. For them getting a ‘solve’ is all that matters, even though the accused may be scarcely morally responsible for committing any crime – acting from delusion or an uncontrollable passion, dominated by what an ancient Greek would call a daimon. Both of course are cops, & I fear if Cassie goes back to the murder squad, she & Conway would be spiritual sisters. Yet Cassie’s transformation is also necessary. In choosing to be a cop instead of a friend, Cassie is also functioning on the mythic level as an alastor, an avenging daimon punishing Lexie’s killers. As in all great tragedies, we feel @ the end of The Likeness that the outcome was cruel, excessive & unnecessary – yet at the same time inevitable & right.

A Goodreads friend & I were discussing when an author should retire the detective in a series. Surely Ruth Rendell kept Wexford around much too long & James’s Dalgleish probably exceeded his sell-by date. For a long time I’ve missed Cassie Maddox terribly & wished Tana French would bring her back as a principal character, tho’ in her absence I’d transferred my affections to Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint. But after reading The Likeness again last month for the fourth time, it was time for her to take a bow, tho’ I wish she’d made a classier exit. (If Sam were a dog, he’d be a golden retriever. Cassie, an Irish terrier!) But Cassie comes very close to casting her career & her fate to the winds, & till she draws back from facing the abyss, she is one irresistibly attractive bad-ass chick.

At the end of the book, Cassie pays a visit to Abby who tells her coldly ‘If you’re looking for some kind of absolution you’re in the wrong place.’ When I first read it, I thought Cassie should reply, ‘I don’t need absolution. I was only doing my job.’ But later I felt that she needed forgiveness & reconciliation. Doing her job meant betraying the best friends that Cassie would ever have & destroying their common life. Cassie does what is legally & professionally right but emotionally it feels all wrong. Like the hero of a French neo-classical tragedy, Cassie has to choose between love & duty. She chooses duty, & dreams of Whitethorn House will continue to haunt her, as The Likeness will us. In the epilogue where Cassie imagines the stricken Lexie’s last moments, we can hear Cassie lamenting as well losing the life she’d only glimpsed she might have had, ‘I hope . . . she floored the pedal & went like wildfire, streamed down the night freeways with both hands off the wheel & her head back screaming to the sky like a lynx, white lines & green lights whipping away into the dark. her tyres inches off the ground & freedom crashing up her spine.’ Lexie is every risk we wanted to take but were afraid to: the teenage boyfriend who wanted you to hitch with him to California to follow that band till your mother talked some sense into you, the gap year you were going to spend backpacking in India with your BF but an internship @ PwC looked a lot safer & more sensible, the theatre major you wanted to choose but you majored instead in economics to please your dad, the med-evac helicopter I might have flown in Vietnam instead of going to grad school in English. They all look just like Lexie.

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