The Dead Ringer

By Dennis Drabelle,
who is a contributing editor and the mysteries editor of Book World
Wednesday, August 13, 2008


By Tana French

Viking. 466 pp. $25.95

Last year, Tana French published her first novel, a strong, long and Edgar Award-winning Irish mystery called "In the Woods." For "The Likeness," she has brought back detective Cassie Maddox and fashioned a plot that harks back to both Donna Tartt and Wilkie Collins.

Here is French's setup. In this age of identity theft, suppose the thief is a dead ringer for the person whose identity she stole, with the emphasis on "dead." That is, the story begins with the thief being found stabbed to death in a cottage not far from Dublin. And the person whose identity she'd filched is Detective Cassie Maddox -- or, rather, Lexie Madison, her undercover alter ego from a case a few years back. The dead faux-Lexie, the police learn, was a graduate student who lived in Whitethorn House, an old pile that she owned with four mates, the five of them forming an envied group of semi-insufferable young brainiacs like the one in Tartt's "Secret History."

Now add the fillip that the cops themselves discovered the body, a circumstance that gives rise to a bold plan called Operation Mirror. They will pretend that the dead woman survived her wounds. After a brief recovery period, she (played by Cassie, natch) will return to that high-octane commune, wearing a wire so that her fellow cops can listen in, all in the hope that she can nab her own murderer, as it were. In this way, Cassie resembles Magdalen Vanstone, the heroine of Collins's "No Name," who goes undercover to infiltrate the house of an odious relative.

Credibility is hardly an issue in "The Secret History," and Collins carefully laid groundwork for the cat-and-mouse sparring of "No Name." But not for a single moment could I put faith in French's premise. One is expected to believe that Cassie not only looks exactly like "Lexie" (even if their height, weight, hair and features match, what about birthmarks and moles?) but talks just like her as well, not to mention that a policewoman can pass herself off as a grad student in English, even to the point of successfully tutoring undergraduates. (There is a suggestion that the welcome given the resurrected Lexie is a case of wishful thinking -- that her housemates so desperately want her back that they beat down their own misgivings -- but since we are limited to Cassie's first-person viewpoint, this remains little more than a possibility.) All of which means that the plot point on which the whole novel turns can't foil a halfway decent baloney detector, yet such is French's prowess as a storyteller and stylist that even this resisting reader got caught up in the story anyway.

At first, Cassie takes her assignment as a challenge: "These four had harmonies close as the most polished a cappella group on the planet," she muses about her housemates, "and I had to pick up my line and join in the jam session without missing a single beat." But on getting to know "the Fantastic Four" (as she calls them behind their backs), she decides that they are less glamorous than they appear, that their incestuous tightness is a function of emotionally deprived childhoods, adult insecurity, the hothouse atmosphere of academe and a potent dose of fanaticism. As her masquerade goes on, the pride Cassie takes in seemingly pulling it off is tempered by a sense of oppression. "I had never, in all my life, spent so much of my time surrounded by people," she complains.

"No pasts" is the house motto, and the residents have bound themselves by an additional pledge: "The five of us against the world, and no secrets, ever." But of course these are impossible rules to live by. Skillfully, French shows how they trip up the surviving residents of Whitethorn House, and Cassie/Lexie herself.

By the time "The Likeness" is over, the reader will probably admire the author for sticking to her guns and doing her best with her material, but there simply is no getting around the material's cockamamie nature. I've never had a reading experience quite like this one: being fascinated by a book not only for its considerable merits but also because of its striking lack of connection with the real world.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company