The Likeness

By Tana French.

Viking. 466 pp. $24.95.


Reviewed by Desmond Ryan


In the follow-up to her striking debut novel,

In the Woods

, Tana French posits the dubious premise of a homicide detective confronted by a victim who is her exact body double. It's an idea that should have given French second thoughts.

This seems doubly true as French stretches already infinitely small likelihood by adding the further development that the late doppelganger also stole and used the identity created for the detective during one of her earlier undercover assignments. Like

In the Woods

, this novel is set in Ireland, a setting infamous for the telling of outlandish tales, but French, who is inarguably talented, has set herself a challenge that dwarfs the difficulties confronting her heroine.

Besides writing psychological thrillers, French is an actress, and it is understandable that she should be fascinated with issues of identity, pretense and duplicity. And there is surely endless fascination in the fragile underpinnings of the persona each of us presents to the world and the ways it can be manipulated. How much of who we are - or who we think we are - depends on the substantiation of others?

But for all the careful effort lavished on

The Likeness

- and French is clearly gifted - the novel too often reads like a narrative bent to accommodate a philosophical discussion. The fact that

The Likeness

clocks in at a hefty 466 pages is no help.

It is one of those books whose redundant sprawl could have been vastly improved by tough editing. This is, after all, a mystery in which the author trots out the kind of what-if premise that is going to be met with a response of "Say what?"

A fast, pulsating tempo could have propelled the wary reader past the many legitimate questions and into a mood to make generous allowances. But at this unnecessary length, there is all too much time to dwell on the artifice of the premise.

Some of the length is wisely spent on launching this improbable case. The first-person narrative is full of pitfalls, but

that's appropriate here. Detective Cassie Maddox, still traumatized by the events of

In the Woods

(this novel takes place only six months after the events of that one), embarks on this bizarre journey in carefully calibrated steps.

A woman is stabbed to death in a derelict cottage in the countryside near Dublin. It turns out she indulged in a unique identity theft before meeting her end: She called herself "Lexie Madison," a fake identity

Maddox

had taken on while posing as a graduate student in English literature during an undercover operation. "Lexie," whoever she really was, was living with a quartet of student friends in a rambling estate one of them inherited.

The friends know only that "Lexie" has been attacked and is missing from their tightly knit circle. After much debate, police decide that only a further subterfuge will work in finding the killer. Her death will be a closely held secret; the story is spread that she was merely wounded. Maddox will pose as the murdered woman and infiltrate a world in which the latter was also an impostor.

Anything in this life is, of course, possible, but what follows is a struggle to so engage us in the crime and its roots that we are supposed to forget the preposterous premises. Even so, the effort and the talent, especially in the precise delineation of alienated characters (just about everyone in the cast of the novel), are quite imposing.

The friends of the late "Lexie" live in an eerie symbiosis that does not readily welcome outsiders. Maddox enters a situation in which each word and gesture as "Lexie" present the peril of a disastrous mistake. The rambling old house where the students live also plays a role. Its past is entwined in the many tragedies of Irish history.

The investigation in which the detective is forced into self-discovery is a familiar path, and, if you can forgive the implausibility of the circumstances, its mysteries are well-turned here. Readers willing to suspend disbelief - how about throwing it out the window? - will find some rewards in

The Likeness

. More demanding souls will simply be exasperated by its unlikeliness.

Desmond Ryan is a retired Inquirer film and theater critic.