For some who read The Likeness, the third installment of Tana French's brilliant Dublin Murder Squad series, the premise is simply insurmountable.
Briefly, Cassie is pulled back into being an undercover detective when a young woman -- her physical doppelganger -- is killed. The woman was part of a collegiate quartet who have all bought a house together and are fixing it up while completing their master's degrees in various humanities fields. The police tell the remaining trio that, miraculously, Cassie's doppelganger has survived being brutally stabbed and Cassie is inserted into the home.
Some readers just can't get past the idea that Cassie can look so much like the victim that she fools the friends. As for myself, I love Tana French's writing so much I'm willing to go wherever she wants to take me. And the suspension of disbelief is easier to acquiesce to than one might think, thanks to French's uncanny ability to write so completely from the point of view of her protagonist.
If anything, the doppelganger aspect adds a depth to Cassie's character that makes this installment one of the most literary mysteries I've ever read. It also serves a crucial function in building the novel's suspense. This is because the friends have created an almost unhealthy proxy family together, but one that also offers safety and comfort to Cassie. Having been orphaned at a young age and raised by caring but distant relatives, Cassie has never known, but has always yearned for, this kind of closeness. French pulls the reader so completely into the group's insular world that as boundaries and ethics blur for Cassie, so do they for the reader. When the psychological danger of this emotionally brittle state becomes untenable, it is but one cymbal crashing in an entire percussive assault of suspense.
And, French is not unrealistic about the doppelganger's "return" to the house, either. French is not an amateur writer and it shows. Cassie has several excruciating moments of panic when she doesn't know certain things about the murder victim that no amount of police background could uncover. The other characters have similar moments of confusion and doubt. All of this only serves to add an undercurrent of suspense to the novel.
Further, the story -- or rather, stories -- The Likeness encompasses are so much more than the doppelganger aspect. The plot turns upon well-explored themes of complex friendships, human nature, youth, the impact one's immediate environment can have on them and family.
The mystery itself is meticulously plotted and the build towards the resolution has the deliciously slow pacing of a Hitchcock film. A minor sub-plot that acts as a story-within-a-story interlude, equally compelling and seamlessly relevant to the investigation, is like an extra layer of delicious icing on an already decadent dessert.
As in the previous French novels, the voice of the protagonist is completely distinct from Rob's voice in In the Woods and Frank's in Faithful Place. Again, many writers can write a character effectively in the first person. What French does, however, is something entirely different. It is sometimes difficult to believe Faithful Place and The Likeness were penned by the same author, so incredibly distinct is each voice.
To call French's books a mysteries is to give them short shrift; they are so character-driven, artfully written and meticulously plotted they read and feel like novels.
French is a writer who clearly does her research and puts as much, if not more, work into her writing as art. And it shows, every time.
That there happens to be a mystery being solved seems less like a focal point of French's books than a concurrent theme. If there is ever room for commercial genre fiction to acknowledge the "literary mystery" openly, the Dublin Murder Squad series will be a great example of it.