“Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat. I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that” Lyrics, ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream
I’ve been working my way pretty compulsively through Tana French, Irish literary crime fiction writer’s books, since coming to her fourth book Broken Harbour, on the strength of two book reviewers blogs. Stand forth Fleur In Her World and Cleopatra Loves Books
Having just finished The Likeness, her second book, I’m reeling, punch drunk, from the emotional journey of this, which for sure must take part of its inspiration from Donna Tartt’s first explosive novel, The Secret History, but is nonetheless in no way derivative, and is all imbued with French’s own intelligence, style, and intricate character and plotting.
Cassie Maddox, the central detective of her gripping first novel, In The Woods, is still feeling the after-shocks of the crime she investigated. No longer in the Murder Squad, she has relocated to the quieter shores of the Domestic Violence Unit, and has begun a relationship with one of the detectives from the murder squad.
The Likeness does read as a stand-alone, for anyone who has not read In The Woods, and anything which the reader needs to know as background does get dripped into the story of this, as Cassie herself continues to come to terms with the events of In The Woods.
We learn something about her professional back-story, too – unfortunately, this is a major spoiler which I think the publishers chose to reveal, and it represents my major criticism of this book (not French’s fault) Cassie worked for a time a few years ago in Undercover Ops, infiltrating a drug ring. Her invented identity was that of a woman called Alexandra (Lexie) Madison. And then a body is found, in a derelict cottage, clearly a very recent murder victim. The wallet on the body shows the victim is called Lexie Madison. Running the identity through the police computer brings in the big gun of Undercover ops, Frank Mackey, who ran Cassie as Lexie. The shock is that this Lexie Madison is a double for the very much alive Cassie Maddox.
The dead Lexie was part of an elite group of 5 post-graduate students, close friends, living in a beautiful, decaying mansion, Whitethorn House, on the outskirts of Glenskehy, a small backwater in the Wicklow Mountains. Inevitably police interest centres initially on the others in the group, but their stories all stack up, and the group are united in their grief that one of theirs is dead. And there are other suspects, which link in to Ireland’s deep history going back through generations, and the tensions arising out of class and nationality – the working class and the peasantry of old Ireland, and the wealthy Anglo Irish landowners.
Irish history is firmly woven into all French’s novels.
So, an audacious plan is set in place (and I’m afraid it is the spoiler of the blurb itself) Cassie could go undercover again as Lexie. The pathology report shows that the woman in the derelict cottage died from a single stab wound which did not happen in the cottage itself, the woman had run from somewhere to the cottage, and bled to death there. Had she been discovered earlier, she might have survived.
The group (including the dead Lexie) were very much the golden, charismatic, bound together elite (and odd, skeletons in their backgrounds) of The Secret History. French adds something else into this however – there is very much a sense of the yearning, soulmate romance of deep friendship, above and beyond sexuality, the kind of friendship that arises in youth, and at the time seems as if it could last a lifetime. And in this book, it is centred as much on place as time. Even whilst within that place there is a kind of looking back to it, a ‘Lost Domaine/Grand Meaulnes’ quality. Cassie herself and Cassie taking on this second ‘Lexie Madison’ identity and the 4 others, is someone who longs for the powerful sense of belonging, of friendships as a more powerful bond than bloodkin, and a more powerful bond than the one-to-one of sexual partnership.
In the sitting room the piano is open, wood glowing chestnut and almost too bright to look at in the bars of sun, the breeze stirring the yellowed sheet music like a finger. The table is laid ready for us, five settings – the bone-china plates and the long-stemmed wineglasses, fresh-cut honeysuckle trailing from a crystal bowl – but the silverware has gone dim with tarnish and the heavy damask napkins are frilled with dust……Somewhere in the house, faint as a fingernail-flick at the edge of my hearing, there are sounds: a scuffle, whispers. It almost stops my heart. The others aren’t gone, I got it all wrong, somehow. They’re only hiding; they’re still here, for ever and ever
And that quote is as powerful a paean to memory, and the sense of our pasts almost within reach, as any I’ve read
This is indeed a long book (she shares that too, with Tartt!) – at nearly 700 pages, but the unravelling of the story, the careful and believable psychology of all the major characters, the tangles and twists of all the relationships, and, for Cassie herself, the weirdness of being herself-and-not-herself, the whole question of identity, arising when anyone is leading any kind of double life, is superlative. And there is also the fascination of the police procedural itself, and how individual police can marry their work functions, with who each of them is, individually.
Most of all – it is the wonderful, seductive quality of French’s writing, and a first person narrator who grabs the reader and makes them as desperate to want the golden lads and lasses to be real, and unsullied as Cassie would like, because of her own yearning for lifelong soulmates, whilst at the same time, making us as needy of her fierce professional desire to solve that crime as she is. She (and we) know that there are two drives going on here, which may not be compatible