There's a dead girl in an abandoned cottage in a tiny Irish village. That's certainly run-of-the-mill for the murder detectives on Dublin's Murder Squad. But the catch this time is that the dead girl is a dead-ringer for former Murder Detective Cassie Maddox. And it gets stickier: the victim's name is Lexie Madison, an alias that Cassie herself created, years before, when she served as an Undercover Agent. There are no real suspects, but Cassie has a unique opportunity in this case: pretend that Lexie didn't die and slip on her shoes once more. Donning Lexie's identity, Cassie goes undercover into the Whitethorn House, the home where Lexie lived with four friends--four very unusual friends--in the hopes that she can ferret out the suspect from the inside.
The Likeness is French's follow-up to In the Woods, which was a darling of critics and readers alike, and highly enjoyed by this reader. Cassie was Rob Ryan's partner on the Murder Squad from ITW, as fans of French will remember, and The Likeness is Cassie's story, told in her first-person voice. I think that French, more than anything, writes psychological thrillers. Sure, it's a murder mystery. Sure, it's a police procedural. But really, she creates a detective, she imagines a case--THE case--that could royally mess with the mind of her detective. We know what happened to Rob's head during Operation Vestal in ITW: it preyed on all his weaknesses and shattered his carefully-constructed world.
In The Likeness, Cassie is beginning a fledgling relationship with Sam O'Neill, the steady, gentle cop who worked with Rob and Cassie on Operation Vestal, but she has her doubts and she's still reeling from the pain of what happened with Rob. Now, she's presented with an opportunity to live with four other young people, to belong with them, as she has belonged nowhere in her life, except for those brief years with Rob. That's a heady and intoxicating atmosphere for a 30-something woman who's never felt like she's belonged: to be welcomed with open arms into a ready-made family of friends. It doesn't take long before the lines of reality become warped, before her objectivity toward the suspects with whom she lives is challenged.
The premise is highly improbable: to encounter another unrelated person in this world who looks exactly like you, to step into their shoes and pose as them, with no one the wiser. It's almost laughable. But if you read this book as the Gothic Novel that it is: atmospheric and moody and haunting, you could believe supernatural occurrences at Whitethorn House, you could believe the existence of a doppelganger whose existence could shake Cassie to her very core.
I'm still in love with French, but The Likeness didn't suck-me-in-and-not-let-me-go quite like In the Woods did to me in December. I attribute this mainly to the voice of the main character. Cassie had a compelling voice, but it was French's portrayal of Rob that really appealed to me. I think that writing from the voice of a character of the opposite sex would be incredibly challenging, but French captured Rob and made me believe he was a man. And let's face it, I lost part of my heart to Rob, so The Likeness couldn't compare on that score. Cassie wasn't the only one still reeling from Rob's betrayal at the end of ITW, (If you didn't pick that up: me. I'm still reeling!) and The Likeness reveals a few more details about their troubling relationship, but nothing that helped to heal this reader's broken heart.
French does amazing things with punctuation. I've never seen dashes and colons and semi-colons used to such tantalizing effect. You could read French just to study and admire those tiny dots and lines and squiggles at the end of phrases that we so often just skim our eyes over, but never really appreciate.
I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars. Atmospheric and intriguing. Lovely writing.