Monday, August 22, 2016

Why Tana French transceneds genre

At the end of my review of Tana French's Into the Woods I said I would be looking into her second mystery, The Likeness. I have. It may be even better—richer, deeper, more complex—than Into the Woods, but in my view they are both so superior to the ordinary mystery it is pointless to compare them with each other.

Start with the narrator. Into the Woods is narrated by a Dublin murder detective Robert Ryan. His partner, to whom he becomes extremely close, is Cassie Maddox. Cassie narrates The Likeness and Rob, who has left the Murder squad, never appears in the new mystery except in Cassie's memories.

The book begins with Cassie and an older detective, Frank Mackay, creating a persona, Alexandra (Lexie) Madison so that she can go undercover to infiltrate drug ring in University College, Dublin. In the course of that investigation, Cassie is stabbed, is pulled in out of the cold, and is promoted to Murder when she recovers. Now four years after Lexie has ceased to exist, young woman's freshly-dead body has been found—Alexandra "Lexie" Madison.

She'd been stabbed and bled to death in an abandoned cottage. Rain has washed away footprints, and there are no obvious clues to her murder—or why she was killed . . . or who she really is. She's been living with four Trinity graduate students in a grand house one of the students inherited from an uncle. Interestingly—and if the reader can accept this, nothing else in the book requires one to suspend belief—Cassie bears a remarkable likeness the dead girl. Frank persuades Cassie and Sam, the other detective on the case and Cassie's significant other, to assume Lexie's persona and continue living with the four Trinity students.

The detectives tell the students—Daniel, Abbie, Rafe, and Justin—that Lexie was badly hurt, is in a coma, and that gives Frank and Cassie time to prepare for the new undercover assignment. When Cassie/Lexie is delivered to the house, the students are delighted to see their housemate (and one-fifth owner of the house) home safe and sound.

Daniel, Abbie, Rafe, and Justin are students, not murderers. Although Frank and Sam do their best to shake their alibi for the night of the girl's death, they are unshakable. The police turn over every rock in the neighborhood looking for someone with some reason to stab "Lexie." No one. Meanwhile, Cassie/Lexie wears her wire, keeps her gun handy, and keeps her eyes and ears open.

Although I had a pretty good idea of who stabbed Lexie (if there are a limited number of possibilities, and if the author is playing fair and not introducing the murderer in the penultimate chapter that's not difficult), I had no idea why. Moreover, I didn't care. Tana French's characters are so fully realized that the mystery is almost secondary. Who are these people? Are Cassie's perceptions accurate or is she kidding herself? Is she in fact a reliable narrator? Exactly how much danger, physical and emotional, is she in? Will she be able to walk away unscathed? I'm not going to tell you.

I am going to tell you that The Likeness is almost 500 pages of 11-point type, so this is not a book to take lightly. I will also tell you that Tana French is the real deal, one of those writers who transcends genre. Which means that even if you don't care for mysteries but want a superior story with exceptional writing, look her up.

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