Book Review (SPOILERS): Tana French’s The Likeness

Tana French’s hard-to-believe murder mystery follows detective Cassie Maddox as she operates in an undercover capacity, slipping into the life of Lexie Madison, a murdered woman who was fraudulently living as detective Maddox’s undercover persona. Taking place in Glenskehy, a small town outside of Dublin, Ireland, the murder occurs near an abandoned, dilapidated cottage near Lexie’s residence. Starting off as a whodunit, the lead detective initially suspects one or more of Lexie’s housemates as a possible culprit and concocts a complex plan that involves convincing detective Maddox to not only return to undercover work but a murder investigation. Although initially reluctant, detective Maddox was fascinated by the plan:

I walked back to the bus station dazzled, wrapped in magic, floating in the middle of a secret and a brand-new world, with the timeline making little crackling sounds in the pocket of my uniform jacket. It was that quick, and it felt simple. I’m not going to get into the long, snarled chain of events that took me from Undercover to Domestic Violence. The abridged version: UCD’s premier speed freak got paranoid and stabbed me, wounded-in-the-line-of-duty got me a place on the Murder squad, the Murder squad got to be a head-wrecker, I got out. It had been years since I’d thought about Lexie and her short shadowy life. (8)

Under the guise of Lexie surviving a stabbing, detective Maddox attempts to investigate Lexie’s murder by pretending to be her while trying not to be caught by Lexie’s four friends and housemates, all of whom are reclusive Trinity College graduate students who know Lexie best. Living in the Whitehorn House with Abby Stone, Justin Mannering, Daniel March, and Rafe Hyland, detective Maddox miraculously achieves the impossible by convincing these four friends that she survived the attempted murder – or at least that’s what they lead her to believe.  

Although verbose at times, this a page-turner beautifully maintains momentum as each character is developed throughout the novel, leaving the reader wondering which of these so-called friends could be a murderer. Or perhaps it was a begrudging Glenskehy local? Or the unknown male who impregnated Lexie? Or someone from her past? The believability of this novel hinges on the assumption that four friends won’t be able to tell the difference between Lexie and detective Maddox. Like friends and family can recognize the nuances that distinguish identical twins, French insults the four friends’ intellect by assuming they won’t be able to tell the difference, putting detective Maddox in a vulnerable and dangerous position – one likely not to be taken by a competent law enforcement agency.

While detective Maddox navigates the murder investigation, balancing personal needs and agency expectations, the reader is taken on a wild hunt for murderer and motive.  However, the novel fell flat with an anticlimactic conclusion and a motive that didn’t warrant the effort or danger of an undercover operation. Although enjoyable for its creativity and character complexity, detective Maddox’s unethical investigative decisions and blatant violations of policy can strike a nerve in the post-2020 reader who expect members of law enforcement (regardless of country) to leave the questionable investigative techniques in the distant past.

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