The Likeness by Tana French

(I’m going to discuss this book in ways that will be deemed spoilery, so please be warned if you like going into mystery books with a pristine mind.)

In the beginning of Tana French’s The Likeness, detective Cassie Maddox is nursing a wound from an old undercover case gone horribly wrong. Reassigned to a desk job after her old team imploded, she feels both frustrated and alienated from her career. Going into this second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series (the first novel is In the Woods), I did not know the particulars of the old case, but it sets up the extent to which Cassie has been emotionally and professionally compromised.

All this was before a corpse that looks exactly like her was found. By the time she agrees to impersonating a dead woman named Lexie and living inside a foreboding house with four murder suspects, you can kind of tell that this new thing is going to mess her up even more.

In the episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour discussing the archetypal role of the detective in popular culture, panelist Margaret H. Willison lays out a brilliant three-pronged schema of qualities embodied by a fictional detective. These are: Amateur vs. Professional, Observer vs. Intuitor, Traumatized vs. Impervious.

The last dichotomy is arguably a 20th century invention. The often beaten, often betrayed gumshoes of noir fiction distinguished themselves from the unruffled gentlemen detectives of the Golden Age* by their complicity with the criminal underclass and the way they took their cases personally. Trauma, as felt by enforcers of justice, has been further explored in our time with the proliferation of police procedurals. Modern crime batters the human soul, the trope says, and even the best among us does not come out of it unscathed.

French’s protagonist is clearly on the extreme end of the trauma spectrum. The narrative fuel for much of the novel comes from Cassie’s high-wire double act of completely inhabiting the dead Lexie’s character while continuing to gather evidence. Although she has had a career as an undercover cop, this case asks her not to invent a believable but whole fictitious identity but to approximate a formerly living person in order to fool her closest friends. This puts her in a state of constant hyperanxiety, as even something as innocuous as food choice can put her entire case and safety in jeopardy.

Aside from this, she also battles with her not-so-subconscious desire to inhabit the life led by the old Lexie. She is part of a charismatic group of five intellectuals who go through their lives studying liberal arts at a prestigious university. The working class Cassie is enamored with the quiet bourgeois world that they’ve built for themselves in the house, despite knowing full well that some horribly dark stuff has already occurred there. She ends up overidentifying with one of the suspects, even going so far as misleading her handlers.

French takes the paradigm of the traumatized detective and puts forth the idea that even trained professionals such as police officers are still at the mercy of their own complete subjectivity. Cassie’s trauma doesn’t so much as break her ability to be objective–she never had objectivity in the first place.

I found The Likeness by Tana French quite enjoyable when I read it back in 2012. But I fear that time and my subsequent reading of a book with a similar premise and outcome (a book which I liked much better) has dimmed my esteem. Because the story marries the Traumatized Detective trope with the Woman in Peril trope, it at times struck me as overheated in its gothic tones.

Some of the reviews I’ve read of Tana French’s books complain about the unsatisfactory nature of some (if not all) of her endings. The plot of The Likeness, while convoluted, ultimately lands in an unsurprising place. But unlike many mysteries, it’s the interior lives of the characters that is the point of this particular book. Cassie is well-wrought as a character in this sense, someone who could infuriate you in her decisions, but who is wonderful in the way she is fully alive.

*Though Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey arguably straddles the divide between traumatized and impervious, but that is a term paper for another day.

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