You ever hear the premise of a book that’s just so outrageous, you drop everything to pick up a copy? That’s what happened for me with The Likeness, a 2008 murder mystery by the reigning queen of Irish crime, Tana French. It’s the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, but the first one to catch my eye.

The Likeness - Tana French - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Likeness begins in 2005, in Dublin, where detective Cassie Maddox is trying to find her balance after a major trauma on a previous case with the Dublin Murder Squad. (Okay, yes, maybe it would’ve been better to read the first book in the series first, because there was a lot of allusion to it in the early chapters, and again towards the end. But I still managed to enjoy The Likeness as a stand-alone, without that richer understanding of the narrator’s background, so it’s not a requirement per se.)

Cassie gets a frantic call from her detective boyfriend, begging her to come out to a crime scene. A dog walker has discovered a girl’s dead body – sadly, nothing unusual about that. What is unusual, however, is the young woman looks exactly like Cassie. Yep! Folks, we’ve got ourselves a doppelgänger.

Not only do they look eerily similar, but it turns out the dead girl was living under an alias that Cassie had used in a previous case while working undercover.

This is the main thing you need to know about Alexandra Madison: she never existed. Frank Mackey and I invented her, a long time ago.

The Likeness (page 3)

The similar looks and the shared alias prompts Cassie’s former boss to suggest a whacky idea. Cassie should go undercover, posing as the dead girl, to see if she can find any leads as to who might have killed her. Cassie will live in her house, attend her classes, drink with her friends – all the while keeping her eyes peeled for a potential murderer.

The premise is ludicrous, of course, but French makes The Likeness seem almost believable. She has serious literary talent, and manages to steer away from the schlock. I went in expecting an over-the-top high-octane thriller, but what I got was intense and intricate.

Once Cassie Maddox goes undercover, The Likeness has a much stronger dark academia flavour than I was expecting. All the key ingredients are there: Trinity College, literary studies, hyper-intellectual hobbies, a close-knit group of friends, an undercurrent of threat, a dark crime, secrets around every corner…

French also folds in a Gothic sensibility, with most of the action taking place in a run-down Edwardian mansion that Cassie-slash-Lexie shares with four fellow students. It has all kinds of symbolic significance, tied into the English oppression and persecution of the Irish (which also pops up in the narrative), as well as being creepy as heck.

As the undercover operation plays out, Cassie gets in too deep – of course. Has there ever been a story about an undercover cop who doesn’t? But rather than falling in love with a murderer or getting addicted to the drugs peddled by people she’s trying to arrest, Cassie slots herself into a found family. They’re more than just housemates – they’re connected by something much deeper, and much more permanent. Trust me when I tell you, The Likeness has a lot more going on than an attention-grabbing plot.

The twists weren’t shocking, but they weren’t completely predictable either. I made a note of who I liked as the killer in Chapter 2, and I was off base – not far off, but still couldn’t pick it. The Likeness isn’t a read-it-all-in-one-sitting grip-the-pages-til-your-knuckles-turn-white thriller. It’s one to pick up when you’re looking for a more complex story, one that weaves together police procedure and Gothic intrigue and psychological games. Even if the twists didn’t surprise me, the whole of the novel sure did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Likeness:

  • “the whole concept of The Likeness is ludicrous, yet it’s written with enough gravitas and pathos as if it was a greek tragedy. Oh the anguish, the despair, the sighing and the worrying – all over a contrived plot any decently drawn fictional character would laugh their ass off over.” – Lush Landscapes
  • “If I had a dime for every time Cassie felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach, I could buy a latte.” – Renee Downing
  • “The story is very interesting, but I don’t like reading a bunch of sweat words. I don’t think that all cops sweat like that, maybe most do, but don’t like the Lord’s name taken in vain. Otherwise the writing was very well done.” – Darlene Webster
  • “Tana French is a talented writer, but she badly needs an editor or friend who will tell her when she’s wrong. She was wrong about the ending for “In The Woods” and she was wrong all over the place with this book.” – Melanie White