In a 2009 Guardian article, award-winning novelist John Banville was questioned about whether his Detective novels deserved to be treated as true literature. “When I get up in the morning,” he said dryly, “I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker Prize winning novel, or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on the side of the crime book.” Although intended as satire, it failed to settle the debate.
That same year, Tana French published her brilliant sophomore novel, The Likeness, and put to bed much of the debate about the stature of Detective Fiction. French, the Edgar Award winning Irish author of In the Woods, has written a thoughtful, challenging, yet thoroughly engrossing work that gives us a great deal to ponder, while telling a page-turning story of mystery and intrigue
Cassie Maddox, the marvelously flawed protagonist from her first novel, reprises her role as an undercover police detective. In an effort to find the killer, and the reasons behind the death of a young woman, she integrates herself into a close-knit group of Trinity College graduate students with whom the victim lived. They room together in an old noble estate, as an intellectual and reclusive collective, but under the surface, they brim with unanswered questions and apparent secrets.
The story moves briskly and has all the twists, turns, tensions and near escapes to keep the reader absorbed, and often anxious that she will be “found-out”. But it would be short shrift to simply say this was just a good story. Like the best of literary works, French uses the genre to explore important and difficult aspects of the human condition. Using the “cover” of feigned identity, she raises real questions about self-identity and who we really are. Do we decide who we are, or are we some construction of the people and settings in which we find ourselves? Are we the roles we are assigned (mother, student, urbanite, employee, etc.)?
She takes it one step further in questioning the propriety and nature of social groups. What is “family” really? The group of five living together have a rule – “No pasts”. Each has a difficult family story, or no story at all. So, they become family to each other, with appropriate roles and behaviors, functioning no different than the biological norm. They work together at school, prepare meals and eat as a group, provide nurturing, love and concern, spend evenings in collective fun challenges and discussions. French examines the sinews that join families, the tensions, power divisions and the supports in revealing ways.
Further, she explores and questions the nature of “normal” assumptions of life. Abby, the “maternal” member of the group posits,
“Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking for granted that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got – specifically even if what you’ve got isn’t all that spectacular – then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules. You’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society is built on…..We’re traitors.
Daniel, the presumptive “paternal” member, chimes in:
“(It’s) Not jealousy after all: fear. It’s a fascinating state of affairs. Throughout history – even a hundred fifty years ago or fifty – it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment. What a strange reversal.”
In a further passage, the characters take on the issue of governance and the propriety of some deciding on life, death and war for others. Daniel expounds:
“Can you see any modern president or Prime Minister on the front lines, leading his men into the war he started? And once the physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader, but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses. War becomes a hideous abstraction a game for bureaucrats to play on paper: soldiers and citizens become mere pawns to be sacrificed by the thousand for reasons that have no roots in reality…..We’re ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.”
The question, of course, is whether French is commenting on politics or on our own lives and how we abdicate who we are, and what we do to the vagaries of our environment and the things we do not (or do not perceive) we control.
But the talent of French is her ability to twist and wend the ideas seamlessly into the personalities, and individualism of the characters, with their quirks, biases and peccadillos, while never revealing herself. We might be led to read these thoughts as rants, but we register them somewhere in our collective recesses. And we think about it. That’s her superpower.
I’m glad that it’s not up to me to decide what is good literature and what is not. I’m glad it’s not up to John Banville or Tana French, or Charles Dickens. I am, however, happy that, because of that, no one has the true right to say otherwise. So, I will say that The Likeness is a tremendous work of fiction, worthy of its accolades as the “Best Novel of the Year (Publishers Weekly, and others), but more importantly, an example of the best of Detective Fiction. And from my chair, it is a work that once more puts to bed any naysaying arguments about the genre.