Thursday 10 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 132: "The Likeness" by Tana French

Page count: 553 pages
Audio book length: 22 hrs 30 mins
Rating: 4 stars

After a murder investigation that completely destroyed her relationship with her detective partner and best friend, Dublin murder detective Cassie Maddox moved to the Domestic Violence unit and took up target shooting to deal with her feelings of anxiety. She's therefore surprised when her boyfriend, Sam O'Neill calls her from a murder site, and asks her to come meet him, but to make sure she wears sunglasses and a hat or some such, to disguise her appearance a bit.

Once Cassie sees the victim, she understands not only why Sam sounded so shaken on the phone, but why he wanted her to come down in person. The murder victim looks exactly like Cassie, and her ID claims that she is "Alexandra Madison". This is impossible, as Alexandra "Lexi" Madison was a fake identity Cassie and her boss created from scratch for an undercover drug case Cassie was part of several years ago. The dead young woman could be Cassie's identical twin, only Cassie is an only child, with no knowledge of any family connection that could explain the similarities.

Her former boss from Undercover, Frank Mackay is also on the scene, bursting with excitement because of the crazy idea he's concocted. He wants to use Cassie's uncanny resemblance to the murder victim to go undercover, pretending to be "Lexi" and try to ferret out who the killer is by interacting with all the people in the victim's life. He wants to tell everyone that Lexi Madison survived her stabbing and has been comatose, giving Cassie time to study the victim carefully. Then he wants her to move in with Lexi's house mates, go to her classes and basically pretend to be her for a few weeks to see what comes up. Hopefully the killer will be so rattled, they reveal themselves in some way.

Sam is absolutely appalled. Cassie initially refuses, but Frank is relentless and uses every bit of his former hold on Cassie to cajole, lure and entice her. He's extremely observant and knows Cassie well, seeing how miserable she is in the DV unit and suspects there may be aspects to her last murder case she hadn't yet processed. Here she has another shot at helping to solve a murder, from a completely different angle. After the murder investigation (not being presented as such to the suspects) still has no leads after several days, Cassie agrees to go undercover.

Having studied every piece of information they have on the victim, including very convenient cell phone videos, Cassie is able to learn the woman's inflections, mannerisms and habits and can also study how "Lexi" interacted with her house mates. The police have let the house mates (still among the primary suspects, despite water tight alibis) know that Lexi has short term amnesia, to help Cassie cover up any initial glitches when she is living among them.

Wired for sound and armed, Cassie is sent to the big house in the Irish countryside where the woman calling herself Lexi lived with four friends - Daniel, Abby, Rafe and Justin. She needs to convince these four highly intelligent young academics, who knew Lexi better than anyone, that Lexi isn't dead, she's just been in a coma after a savage knife attack. Neither O'Neill nor Mackay trust the house mates, for all that their stories all match up. They believe one or several of the friends may have been Lexi's murderer.

As days and then weeks tick by, Cassie's cover, although in danger a few times, seems to be holding. She settles more firmly in Lexi's skin, forgetting for a while about her past difficulties, her quarrels with Sam and her dreary job in DV. Lexi's friends are a strange bunch, fiercely loyal to each other and very stand-offish to outsiders. They are like family to one another, quite content to exist without interacting very much with anyone outside their little clique.

For a time, Cassie allows herself to almost forget her role as a detective and her duty, but I was never able to distance myself from the gigantic lie the police were feeding these people. Believing their dear friend almost died, then came back to them, they were all in for such a crushing blow when the truth came out. Four young intellectuals, so determined to forge their own path. Spending their evenings and weekends redoing the old house, or reading, discussing or playing cards. No TV or computers or smart phone apps. Lexi's phone seemed to have been used as a video camera, but none of the group liked using computers or only modern technology. There's something both incredibly pretentious and quite admirable about that.

As with In the Woods, this book is more about exploring psychology and questions around identity and personality than a straight up murder mystery. The plot demands a pretty serious suspension of disbelief; that based on nothing but medical records, photos, files and some phone videos, Cassie was so good at impersonating another person that not one of the four people who knew her best caught onto her being an impostor. That's after the massive coincidence that the murdered woman looked exactly like Cassie, down to height, build, hair colour, facial features, even hands and teeth AND had assumed her abandoned undercover identity. Because the story entertained me, and Cassie was one of my favourite characters in the previous book, I was willing to go along with it.

Of course, Cassie as a supporting character, seen through the eyes of her best friend (the books are all first person) is different from Cassie as the protagonist, having gone through some tough stuff in the last six months. French's protagonists aren't really all that nice, they are flawed in many ways. That's what makes them seem so real. I had real trouble with some of the choices and decisions made by Rob in the last book, I didn't always agree with Cassie in this one. But I still liked her more. While I don't love these books as much as Narfna/Ashley does, I am enjoying them a lot, and the audio narration for this one was truly excellent. I will be reading more of these in the new year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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