In the second installment of Tana French‘s Dublin Murder Squad series, Cassie Maddox hasn’t quite recovered from Operation Vestal of In the Woods, the series’ debut. While she gained a caring, supportive, all-around good guy lover, she lost her partner who was also her very best friend. She’s given up the murder squad for now, and is working somewhat under the radar in Domestic Violence.
And then a young woman named Lexie Madison is found stabbed to death in an abandoned stone cottage. The problem is, Lexie Madison shouldn’t exist. Cassie and her former Undercover boss, Frank Mackey, invented everything about her – name, family, life story – for an assignment for Cassie years back. But that’s still not the most freakish detail: this ersatz Lexie is also Cassie’s doppelgänger.
Determined to solve this multi-layered mystery, Frank wheedles Cassie into returning to Undercover and literally bring Lexie back to life. Coached and wired, Cassie moves into the mansion outside Dublin where Lexie lived an insulated, rather halcyon life with four roommates, all graduate students at nearby Trinity College. Living, laughing, sharing everyday life with perhaps her own murderer, Cassie’s struggle to remain detached and objective gets ever more challenging.
Likeness is most obviously a murderous thriller, although it rises far above typical genre fiction with deeply psychological observations of the fluidity of identity. Lexie Madison tosses identities aside, while Cassie willingly sublimates her own – far beyond the call of career duty. Her tough exterior hides her lifelong fragility: her parents’ sudden death at a young age, her loving but distant aunt and uncle who never managed to make her feel like a permanent member of their family, the ever-temporary quality of her rented, anonymous living spaces, her loss of the most constant person in her life, her limited relationships, all collude to make Cassie vulnerable to the lure of intimacy, of permanence with her new housemates. Her loss of objectivity is almost expected, as her resistance to the inviting sense of belonging lessens meal by meal, tear after tear, day by day.
For those of you who choose to take murder on the run, Heather O’Neill is just the right energetic narrator, with only a small misstep when she attempts a faulty Australian accent. She’s able to take what might be yawn-inducing on the page – I strongly suspect the minutest details of the ongoing exchanges of five roommates would prove flat in print – and ratchet the tempo just enough to discard the burnt toast while keeping the ears tuned to Cassie’s never-stopping reactions. You might solve the whodunit before Cassie does, but the how and why will keep the story firmly stuck in the ears, long after the guilty admits all.