When the phrase "psychological thriller" appears on jacket copy, it's likely that psychological realism has gone out the window. But who cares as long as the book fits in your carry-on? Tana French's mysteries break with that pattern: interior characterization drives these books, and both run to nearly 500 pages. But I defy you to leave either at home once you've turned the first page.
French's debut novel, In The Woods (the 2008 Edgar Award winner for best first novel by an American author), audaciously denied the closure that mystery fans crave; one of the crimes remained unsolved. Readers hoping that this follow-up novel would deliver that resolution should be disappointed for about a minute and a half — the time it takes for the new story to grip.
Narrating The Likeness is a familiar voice, the plucky and impudent Detective Cassie Maddox, who is exiled to Domestic Violence after the events of In The Woods and ensconced in a shaky new relationship with eternal good guy, Detective Sam O'Neill.
The book begins with a familiar face, too: its murder victim, a Ph.D. student, is a near perfect physical match for Cassie. Weirder still, the slain doppelganger — found stabbed on the outskirts of Dublin and whose death is still unknown to her friends — had appropriated Cassie's old undercover name, Lexie Madison. (It's a credit to French, and her knack for snappy dialogue and crisp prose, that the setup never feels convoluted.)
With the identity of both the victim and the murderer to resolve, Cassie's roguish ex-boss Frank Mackey persuades her to infiltrate — and occupy — dead Lexie's life. She does, inheriting an intense and exclusive group of friends, all of whom live together in an off-campus house with a past of its own that's as complicated as the stories of its inhabitants.
The cagily charismatic group drinks, banters, screws and harbors its intimacies as seductively as the oddballs in Donna Tartt's classic The Secret History. As in that novel, the thrill comes in exploring the peculiar, collective psychology of the clique — the members of which keep secrets about Lexie's murder from outsiders and each other.
Again, The Likeness isn't about solving mysteries so much as exploring them. Both Cassie and her departed double make the mistake of relishing their assumed identities and the ability to leave an old life behind. Both pay a price. Readers lost in their books may recognize a troubling likeness to themselves.