Is it too early to say that Tana French is becoming to modern mysteries what Kate DiCamillo is to children's literature?
I was blown away by how good DiCamillo's Despereaux was, and I thought it was reasonable to assume that most good writers have one book in them where they surpass themselves and really shine, and Despereaux was hers. Then I read Edward Tulane and had to revise my theory.
French's debut novel, In the Woods was eerily impressive for a first novel. It was polished and smooth as a skipping stone at the bottom of a clear lake. French seemed to be more interested in character development than cliff-hanging suspense. She she cocooned Detectives Rob Ryan, Cassie Maddox, and Sam O'Neill around the reader, immersing the pages in the details of their lives, personalities and moods, until all of a sudden all that silky character development has become a iron trap, and the reader is locked inside their psyches as they confront the terrifying climax.
But there's no way she could do it again so soon, right? Her second novel is surely going to fall victim to the sophomore slump. Wrong! The Likeness is awesome, too!
Just for fun, read Janet Maslin's review of The Likeness and come back here.
Hee! Maslin clearly didn't read French's first book, and assumed that when Cassie mentions a previous case where she went undercover as college student Lexie Madison, and ended up on the wrong end of a knife, she must have been referring back to In the Woods, and in most serial detective novels that would have been a safe bet, because they almost always do that. But French is not so cheap. The Lexie Madison persona is only mentioned in passing at the beginning of the book, to explain how she got transferred to the Murder squad in Dublin. Cassie Maddox wasn't working undercover at all.
It's not until The Likeness that her life as an undercover officer returns.
After the events of In the Woods, Maddox is no longer working in Murder, but has transferred to Domestic Violence, which is stable but holds little excitement for her, detective-wise. She plods along in her business suit, taking statements and filing reports, until she gets a phone call from Sam O'Neill, who is freaked out six ways to Sunday, and begs her to drive immediately to the little village of Glenskehy. She does, and to her surprise finds her former boss in undercover, Frank Mackey, is also there, in an abandoned house with Sam, standing over the body of a woman.
The dead woman could be Cassie's identical twin, and even creepier, when they remove her ID from her pocket, the name on her ID card is Lexie Madison.
Frank is turning cartwheels of joy over the whole thing, because he has the idea to pretend like the woman didn't die, and Cassie can pretend to be the dead woman to find out who killed her.
Cassie and Sam think this is a terrible idea, and so do I, because let's face it: this could never happen, and even if it could, you can't fake being someone else for very long without getting busted under close scrutiny. I don't care how good you are.
But let's suspend disbelief, because if you don't, you'll miss all the fun. Of course, Cassie agrees to do it, and moves in to a gorgeous old home with the dead girls' housemates, all Ph.D. candidates - Daniel, the paternal leader of the group whose wealthy noble uncle willed him the house; Abby, the smart and warm best friend; Rafe, the moody English hottie, and Justin, the sweet, more naive member of the group.
At first Cassie tries to get her bearings in the house, trying to seem like she's always been there while quietly gathering information. But soon the dynamics of the house begin to suck her in for real, and Cassie, an orphan and a loner, realizes this group is a family, and fills a need in her she never knew was so strong.
As with In the Woods, French spends a lot of time developing the characters, as well as peppering the novel with lots of suspects, lots of motive, and lots of frustrating dead leads, because the more she learns about this Lexie Madison, the more reasons Cassie finds for her murder. What is missing this time is the aloof tone of Rob Ryan, replaced with the zippier voice of Cassie. Where Rob made me have to put the novel down and take breaks before coming back to it, I essentially ate The Likeness, finishing it in less than two days.
I'm wondering what French has up her sleeve for her third book. Surely it can't be as good as the first two, right?
by Tana French
July, 2008 by Viking
Thursday, January 08, 2009