In the second of her police procedural series set around the Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French focuses on Detective Cassie Maddox, a traumatised cop who bears an uncanny likeness to a murder victim.
A former undercover police officer, Cassie is recovering from the fallout of a prior case. When her new boyfriend, the solid and dependable detective Sam O’Neill, is called to a crime scene where a woman’s body has been found in a broken down cottage, he at first thinks it is Cassie. Instead, the victim is identified as Lexie Madison, a mature student who lives with a group of intellectual misfits at a grand house in the nearby village.
Although the privileged and aloof gang has a knack of making itself unpopular, there is no obvious motive for Lexie’s murder. With no leads or clues, the police hatch a plan to take advantage of the similarity between Cassie and Lexie to solve the crime. What ensues reveals that the two women may have had more in common than just outward appearance.
This slow-burning suspense invests time in building up characters, motives and tension. With the large cast of housemates and villagers, French expertly allows us to ponder their possible involvement in the killing. The mood of eccentricity, elitism and anachronism that pervades Whitethorn House slowly casts even battle-hardened Cassie under a spell; although the friends will also ring bells with anyone who enjoyed Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”.
The most engaging element is the collision between personal and professional in Cassie’s mind - we, like her, gradually conflate the officer and the victim until we don’t know where Lexie ends and Cassie begins. This is the heart of the novel: Cassie identifying and healing herself in the guise of the lost woman. So much so that the resolution of the central mystery — who killed Lexie Madison? — is almost an anticlimax that gets in the way of the more compelling curiosity about how Cassie will ever step out from the shadow of her ill-fated doppelgänger.