Friday, November 5, 2010

Hard knock life.

I just finished Tana French's latest novel, Faithful Place, and thought I would review it along with her first two novels, In The Woods and The Likeness. Tana French writes fairly straightforward detective novels, but she's a solid if not inventive writer, and the novel's settings are exotic enough (Ireland) to be interesting but not confusing to American readers - sort of like the crop of Swedish noir and the Millennium trilogy that have become so popular. French's first two novels landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

In The Woods, French's first novel, was published in 2007. Irish policeman Adam Ryan and his fellow detective, the slight, feisty Cassie Maddox, take on a case of a murdered girl found at an archeological site in the woods near Ryan's hometown. As a child, Ryan's two best friends vanished in the same woods, and although he was with them, he has no memory of what happened and has carried survivor's guilt with him the rest of his life. His hope of finding out is dashed when the case reveals that the murder isn't related to their disappearance, but returning to his hometown forces Ryan to rip the scab off some ugly memories.

At the same time, his personal life starts spiraling out of control, culminating in one very stupid decision that leaves him friendless and regretful. The novel ends with the crime resolved, although Ryan's life remains upended.

The Likeness picks up where In The Woods left off, but French shifts focus to Cassie Maddox, leaving Ryan at the periphery of the novel. It's an interesting idea and keeps the novel from devolving into standard-formula-detective-series-mush, and Maddox makes a more interesting and complex character than Ryan. Maddox is small, young-looking, and a good liar, which makes her a natural for undercover work. As the novel opens, Maddox has been posing as a university student, but is pulled off of the job after being stabbed by the dealer the squad is trying to nail. Her stabbing gives the squad a convenient way to claim that "Alexandra Madison," Maddox's alias, is dead...except another dead girl with an ID card with the same name who looks exactly like Cassie turns up in an abandoned shed.

The dead Lexie lived in a large, rambling manor house called Whitethorn with four other students. At the university, the five have an odd reputation - they keep to themselves and have only superficial interaction with anyone outside their invented family. Frank Mackey, the detective in charge of the case, persuades Maddox to assume Lexie's identity again, and tells the students that Lexie survived the attack, albeit without any memory of who tried to kill her. Maddox, now Lexie, goes to Whitethorn wearing a wire in the hopes of figuring out who killed Lexie, and who the girl who stole her made-up identity really is.

Once Maddox/Lexie is installed in Whitethorn, the novel slows down while French picks apart the eccentricities of the inhabitants, who have constructed an anachronistic, insular little world. Maddox finds herself forming real bonds with the other students, until her masquerade becomes harder and harder to maintain.

The Likeness is a tricky little thriller and French does an excellent job rendering the inhabitants of Whitethorn. Maddox is a refreshing change from the usual protagonists of modern detective novels, where women are usually relegated to being bitchy ex-wives, battered prostitutes, or oddities on the force. Maddox takes a little flak for being a woman, but her coworkers consider her youth and appearance an asset, and the emphasis in Woods is on psychological maneouvering, not busting down doors with a gun.

Still, I had a hard time swallowing the basic premise of the book - there are doppelgangers out there (I routinely have people confuse me with our building's librarian), but it's hard to believe that four people would believe the Maddox/Lexie switch. Even identical twins have something that sets them apart - a way of walking, a gesture - and Maddox has never even met the girl claiming to be Alexandra Madison. Still, if you can accept that such a switch is feasible, the rest of the book is a suspenseful and complicated read.

In Faithful Place, French again switches narrators, this time picking up with Frank Mackey, the detective from the first two novels. Mackey is older, more bitter, and probably closer to the snarky-detective cliche than Ryan and Maddox, but although he comes loaded with standard-issue baggage (angry ex-wife, abusive childhood, inferiority complex) he's still a believable character.

Mackey is from a public housing development called Faithful Place, home to Guinness lineworkers and families on the dole. His family is the lowest of the low on his street, with an alcoholic, violent father, a tough-as-nails mother, and a slew of siblings. Mackey falls in love with the neighbor's daughter, the beautiful Rosie Daly. The Dalys and the Mackeys hate each other, and Rosie's father forbids her from seeing Mackey, so they plan to leave for England together. But on the night Rosie is supposed to meet Frank, she doesn't show up, and Frank assumes that she's ditched him and headed for England on her own. Frank makes it out, becomes a detective, and cuts off his family, except for his favorite sister.

Twenty-two years later, Rosie's suitcase is found behind the fireplace of the abandoned house that served as the teenage hangout of Faithful Place, and Frank is forced to return home to the family he's barely had contact with in over two decades. A grisly discovery in the basement of Number Sixteen forces him to accept that Rosie didn't abandon him, and that something is very, very rotten in Faithful Place.

French's depiction of Faithful Place and those who didn't quite make it out is very well done, although this novel lacks the ratcheting tension of her first two. It's apparent rather quickly who the killer is, and the confrontation doesn't feel very cataclysmic. Faithful Place feels more like a meditation on the deadliness of family ties rather than a thriller, but it's written with French's crisp style and skillful dialogue and still a good read.

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