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Literature / The Likeness

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"Some people are little Chernobyls, shimmering with silent, spreading poison: get anywhere near them and every breath you take will wreck you from the inside out."

Cassie Maddox, Lexie Madison. Live detective, dead girl. Same face. Wait, what?

The Likeness is a 2008 novel by Irish author Tana French, the second in her Dublin Murder Squad series. Cassie Maddox, a Dublin detective still wrecked from her last case (which is the subject of French's previous novel, In the Woods), is called to what looks to be a rather peaceful cottage, except it's also a crime scene. A dead girl lies on the floor. She looks exactly like Cassie. What's more, she's carrying ID that identifies her as Lexie Madison, an alias that Cassie once used years ago.

Flash forward a few chapters, and Cassie's gone undercover as Lexie, pretending that Lexie was merely knocked unconscious, and begun living with Lexie's housemates, four English postgrads at Trinity College Dublin (Cassie's boss derisively refers to them as the Fantastic Four). Cassie lives Lexie's life for some time, trying to find out whoever Lexie actually was and why she ended up dead. (Yes, Cassie is pretending to be a woman who pretended to be a woman whom Cassie once pretended to be.) But the further she investigates, the more Cassie realizes that she might like Lexie's life more than her own - which will wreck her head even more than when she started.


This novel provides examples of:

  • A House Divided: The Fantastic Four. Everything seems perfect to outsiders, but among them, not so much.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Between the Fantastic Four. Justin's in love with Rafe, Abby's in love with Daniel, and neither of them have their feelings reciprocated. Doesn't stop them from having comfort sex, though.
  • Be as Unhelpful as Possible: The Fantastic Four. They're all very polite and pleasant, but they actually don't give anything away, to Frank's ire.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The Fantastic Four, according to Cassie... Unless you're asking Frank.
  • Becoming the Mask: Cassie throughout the book. This is, of course, an occupational hazard of working Undercover.
  • Berserk Button: For the Fantastic Four, it's their house: they refuse to speak of Daniel's cousin, who wants to turn it into luxury apartments. This might be because Lexie was going to sell her share of the house to him.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: While Cassie is shaken up by the experience of having gone too deep in Lexie's life and being forced to kill Daniel, she doesn't really suffer any major consequences for the incident and accepts Sam's marriage proposal, concluding that while she wants to go back to Murder Squad, she can live without it if it means being happy with Sam. The remaining members of the Fantastic Four are later shown to have drifted apart, but while their current lives aren't exactly the greatest, they are ultimately livable and the implication is they will be able to move on and possibly even forget what happened.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Out of the Fantastic Four, it's definitely Rafe.
    "I spend my days watching soap operas, eating bonbons, and plotting society's downfall."
    "Lunatics. I'm surrounded by wall-to-wall lunatics. What have I done to deserve this? Did I pick on the afflicted in a previous life?"
    "It was like being molested by a walrus soaked in air freshener."
  • Defective Detective: Par for the course in Tana French's work. Cassie is a victim of recent trauma, which exacerbates preexisting issues with the boundary between fiction and reality which may or may not date back to the sudden death of her parents when she was very young. Frank has similar issues, which recently led to the breakup of his marriage; it's frequently noted that undercover detective work comes at great psychological and personal cost, destroying relationships and compromising sanity.
    Frank told me once—and I don't know whether he's right or not, and I didn't tell Sam this either—that all the best undercovers have a dark thread woven into them, somewhere.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Rafe spends the second half of the novel drunk. He's not a very nice drunk.
  • Expy: Daniel March, of Henry Winter from The Secret History.
  • Family of Choice: A tragic deconstruction. The five literally considered themselves a family and fully intended to grow old together without forming outside connections, leading to Lexie's murder when her friends found out she was attempting to sell her share of Whitethorn House, which would have lead to their eviction.
  • Fatal Flaw: Daniel comments that Lexie had "no understanding of action and consequence."
    "Lexie was both incapable of thinking about the past," he said, "and incapable about thinking more than one step into the future."
  • Follow in My Footsteps: The reason for the tension between Rafe and his father.
  • Freudian Excuse: This is ultimately revealed to be the reason behind a lot of Lexie's behavior. Her father states she lost her mother during the childbirth of her brother, which left her traumatized and afraid of getting in too deep with other people.
  • Friends Are Chosen, Family Aren't: None of the housemates are close to their biological families.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Justified; Daniel inherited Whitethorn House from an uncle.
  • Genki Girl: Lexie. Cassie guesses that she takes on this identity deliberately so that she would have a role in the group:
    It wasn't until I was getting into bed, that night, that I remembered: that day on the grass, when something had clicked into place and I had seen the five of them as a family, Lexie as the cheeky late-baby sister. Lexie's mind had gone along the same track as mine had, only a million times faster. She had taken one look and seen what they were and what they were missing, and fast as a blink she had made herself into that.
  • The Ghost: Rob Ryan, Cassie's former partner and the protagonist of French's first novel In the Woods.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Sam and Frank, respectively.
  • Guilt-Ridden Accomplice: Oh God, the novel is full of them. However, Cassie correctly guesses that Justin is the weak link.
    • Cassie sees herself as an accomplice, in a way:
      For a whirling instant, I understood completely: Frank and I had done this. We made Lexie Madison bone by bone and fiber by fiber, we baptized her and for a few months we gave her a face and a body, and when we threw her away she wanted more. She spent four years spinning herself back, out of dark earth and night winds, and then she called us here to see what we had done.
  • Identical Stranger: Cassie and Lexie were both this to each other, with "Lexie" using the resemblance to assume Cassie's undercover identity and Cassie later taking over the identity again to find out who killed her.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: While to some extent this applies to the Fantastic Four as a whole given they were all lonely and came from less than ideal circumstances before meeting each other, it especially applies to Daniel. He's very eccentric and by his own admission, doesn't make friends easily, to the point he considers the rest of the group the only people he's ever loved in his entire life. This is why he was willing to let one of them to die to protect their home and the others.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While Rafe is often surly and insensitive in his interactions with the group (especially when he gets drunk), he does raise some good points occasionally and was in fact completely right about Daniel being suspicious and essentially letting Lexie die instead of just calling in an ambulance to save her.
  • Murder by Inaction: Although Lexie was stabbed, it did not kill her immediately - she was still alive when Daniel found her. He let her bleed out and said he found her that way.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: When Daniel aims his gun at Cassie, Cassie shoots back, killing him. Later, Frank says to Cassie that he had chosen "suicide by cop," and that Cassie had no other choice.
  • Old, Dark House: The house that Cassie moves into, Whitethorn House, is definitely one of these.
  • Pulling the Thread: Lexie hated onions, a fact Cassie didn't know until after the others remark on how strange it is that she's happily chowing down on seconds of a dish with onions in it. She plays it off as side effects from her antibiotics, but Daniel figures out she must be a fake anyway.
  • Red Herring: Cassie eventually discovers that people have been vandalizing the house for a long while, and that there is a long-held grudge on the part of Glensheky villagers against the March family (and by extension, anyone living in the March house) for being cruel landowners, with one particular story about how one March possibly got a village girl pregnant and eventually killed her decades ago. Ultimately however, the vandal was not involved with Lexie's death.
  • Starving Student: Abby and Lexie, before the Fantastic Five moved in together. Abby frequently points out that were it not for the house, she'd be 'living in a scary bedsit' in Ranelagh. When the Fantastic Four break up at the novel's end, that's exactly where she ends up.
  • Taking the Heat: While it was Justin who actually stabbed Lexie, it's Daniel who confesses and ultimately ends up with the blame. However, she could have survived, had Daniel not lied about her already being dead when they found her. So in a way, it was him.
  • To Know Him, I Must Become Him: Technically, it's the premise of the book.
  • Quirky Household:
    • Cassie points out that the five of them, while not a perfect Five-Man Band, are definitely some kind of family, made all the more poignant by the fact that none of the five have real families of their own. Cassie doesn't, either.
    • The genius of Lexie, according to Cassie, was that she saw the original four, she understood that they needed a fifth, and turned herself into The Chick to complete their version of the Five-Man Band.
      These five had it all: Daniel the distant but affectionate father, Justin and Abby taking turns to be the protective Mammy and the lofty eldest, Rafe the moody teenage middle kid, and Lexie, the late arrival, the capricious little sister to be alternately spoiled and teased.
    • They turn into a Dysfunctional Family by the novel's end.
    • You could argue that they are a Five-Man Band - Daniel as The Leader, Lexie as The Chick, Justin as The Smart Guy and Rafe and Abby sharing both The Lancer and The Big Guy.
  • World of Snark: To a lesser extent, everyone else: Cassie, Cassie-as-Lexie, and Frank. Abby has her snarky moments, too.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Daniel, all the way.
  • You Say Tomato: Cassie frequently makes notes of the accents of others: her boyfriend Sam has a country accent, being from Galway; her boss Frank has an inner-city Dublin accent; Justin's voice has 'a Belfast tinge;' and Rafe cultivates a 'lazy English sneer.' Lexie's accent is described as 'old fashioned County Dublin,' probably picked up from a television show given that Lexie was actually Australian.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The plot contains very direct, and likely intentional, similarities to Donna Tartt's The Secret History.