I’ve been waiting to read The Likeness by Tana French for so long and finally it appeared in my library after many, many months. I was really impressed with French’s previous novel In the Woods (a sort-of prequel to The Likeness in the sense that it also features Detective Cassie Maddox) which was atmospheric and thrilling and didn’t really wrap up the mystery in a conventional sense. It was like a breath of fresh air and reminded me a lot of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler mysteries.

In The Likeness, French puts forth an incredible premise and one I hadn’t really seen anywhere else. A body of a young woman is found in an abandoned cottage, stabbed. Detective Cassie Maddox is called out to view the body and comes face to face with her double and undercover alter ego, Lexie Madison, who she had put to rest many years ago. Who was this woman and why did she die? This opportunity is too good to miss for Cassie’s ex-boss Frank who created the identity of Lexie Madison, and although her boyfriend Sam disapproves, Cassie agrees to go undercover again to find the killer. She slots back easily into the life of an English PhD sharing a beautiful, crumbling house with Lexie’s four best friends, all students at Trinity College Dublin. The house is in Glenskehy, a small village where no love is lost between the locals and the inhabitants of the house. As well as finding Lexie’s killer, she must also stay a step ahead of her friends, who spend all their time together, and get to the bottom of the biggest mystery of all: who was Lexie?

I actually heard about this book first. There was such a buzz about it amongst book bloggers but I like to read my mysteries in order so had to go and hunt out French’s debut In the Woods. Maybe because I was wanting to read The Likeness for so long, it took me a while to actually get into it and start enjoying the story. And because it’s such a big book, close to 700 pages, I was beginning to worry that I might not like it so much. But, the premise was so intriguing that I kept on reading and soon I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It’s a fantastic mystery, and French keeps the pace, finely tuning the suspense to perfect pitch until you just have to know who did it. I’m so proud of myself that I didn’t turn to the last few pages to find out whodunnit (I learnt my lesson many, many years ago with my Agatha Christies and I regretted it every single time.)

Overall I thought the book could have been a little shorter and there were several instances where I couldn’t understand why Cassie didn’t follow her orders and kept secrets from her boss Frank, because you knew this would just endanger her (as in all thrillers and horror films, I always end up shouting at the screen when a character willingly goes alone into the dark when you know something bad would happen). But she had her reasons, and French has created a wonderful, original and slightly flawed character who understands loss, compassion and above all, her job. Cassie comes with baggage, and French gives her the opportunity to sort herself out.

Lexie and her friends who shared their life in the crumbling house and studied together is strongly reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Their refined air which sets them apart from their peers, their unbreakable bond of friendship and their taut and extremely private inner lives which only needs one event to crack their polished veneer really made me want to reread Tartt again (and I’m going to this year).

Although I found The Likeness to be a slow start, it picked up pace and was overall a very enjoyable read.

*You can read about Tana French’s top 10 maverick mysteries here.

I read this for the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010.

The Three Evangelists The Chalk Circle Man

A year ago I read The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, partly because I was intrigued by the title. I like my gothic/religious fiction and anything that sounds remotely like it always catches my attention. Also I was planning a trip to Paris and whenever I go abroad I like to read up on the country beforehand to absorb the cultural atmosphere of the place. What really drew my interest was that the three main protagonists were historians. I adore history and would read almost anything to do with history and digging up the past, especially if there was a mystery involved. So the perfect book. And it really was.

So when I heard that Vargas’ first crime novel in which Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg first appears will finally be published in English, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I like to read my series in order, you see, and somehow they published Vargas’ later novels before the first one, so I had to wait. Very strange.

The Chalk Circle Man is only a small book, about 250 pages long. It has everything I love about French fiction: interesting but opaque characters who aren’t your ordinary mtv beautiful types, philosophical musings and drinking during the day. Everyone is eccentric, ugly/beautiful and has their own sorrowful tale to tell. Although some may think her plot improbably, it is certainly different and really kept me guessing until the end. The dénouement wasn’t a thunderbolt (like my earlier experience with Agatha Christie – I’ve read too many murder mysteries and am older and more jaded now) but it was a pleasant surprise and had a clever twist. And it won the 2009 Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger Award.

The novel starts with Adamsberg’s promotion to head a Parisian murder squad after twenty years in the police and having picked up a reputation as ‘the wild one’ due to his unconventional, but successful, methods in solving cases. As his colleagues get acquainted with him, so do we. He is an unpretentious man, often silent, doodling in company and talks with a quiet voice. But he has an instinct for spotting cruelty that lurks beneath ordinary people’s facades. Blue chalk circles are making nightly appearances all over Paris and Adamsberg is troubled. They encircle discarded objects but soon progress to dead animals and eventually to a woman with her throat savagely cut. Adamsberg has to deal with this and a host of unruly characters who may or may not be suspects while trying to catch a killer who may kill again. He is aided by Danglard, his inspector, who is intelligent, a father to two sets of twins and is partial to a bottle of white wine after 4pm.

I enjoyed this novel immensely because of it’s setting (Paris!) and the variety of characters that appear. The plot was novel and didn’t disappoint me either. I don’t know what it’s like to read it in French (I wish I could but I doubt I would get beyond the synopsis) but the English translation was smooth and draws you in without a struggle. For my part, I can’t wait to read her other novels.

thehiddenstaircase murderonthelinks theroserent

My love affair with mysteries began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I was living in Bangkok as a child, and opposite our street (Sukhumvit Soi 12) was a small English language bookshop called Asia Bookstore. I don’t know if it still exists but it was my favourite place in Thailand. Because English books were prime commodities in the thriving ex-pat community, I was rationed books. Luckily I went to a British school that had a huge library so I was well stocked.

I discovered Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie on a dusty bookshelf in my grandparents’ house on while on a trip to Sri Lanka when I was nine. The book was wedged between an old picture diary of my mother’s from when she was seven (I don’t know how it got there from Japan) and some Sinhalese books. Awaiting me at the end of the novel was the biggest shock of my life. I was totally flabbergasted and unprepared for the identity of the murderer. I went back through the book picking out the clues and red herrings and was hooked on Christie ever since. It was then only a matter of time before I started reading Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.

It was when I was at boarding school in the UK that I chanced upon Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery The Rose Rent in the school library. Of course, what first drew me to the book was the title. How romantic and mysterious it seemed. I was then fifteen and was gutted that I was unable to study medieval and tudor English history for GCSE. Our syllabus was all about the two world wars. So I leapt into Peters’ medieval world and was entranced by the images and names from that period. And so my love affair with historical mysteries began. It’s funny how now I can’t get enough of the interwar period.

Crime and Mysteries

Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael series)
Lindsey Davis (Falco series)
Paul Doherty (Brother Athelstan series, Hugh Corbett series, White Rose Murders – Tudor mysteries)
Elizabeth Eyre (Rennaissance series)
Candace Robb (Apothecary Rose – Owen Archer series)
Deanna Raybourn (Julia Grey mysteries)
Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody series)
Susanna Gregory (Matthew Bartholomew series)
Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey series)
Agatha Christie (Poirot, Miss Marple, Harlequin)
Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn mysteries)
Margery Allingham (Campion mysteries)
Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum, The Name of the Rose)
Caleb Carr (The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness)
Eliott Pattison (Inspector Shan Tibetan mysteries)
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child (Agent Pendergast series)
John Dunning (Bookman series)
Eleanor Updale (Montmorency series)
Christopher Fowler (Bryant & May series)
David Roberts (Lord Edward Corinth & Verity Browne series)
Seishi Yokomizo (Kindaichi Kousuke series – in Japanese only)
Akimitsu Takagi (The Tattoo Murder Mystery)

As I’ve been reading murder mysteries for an insanely long time, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important titles. I think I caught the first wave of popular historical mysteries with Ellis Peters, Paul Doherty, Candace Robb and others. I spent many a happy hour looking for exciting new titles at the Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road which sadly closed it’s bookshop this year, but the business is still ongoing and they have an excellent mail order service. Now there’s a second wave with the rising popularity of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Sheldrake series beginning with Dissolution. Who can resist such a great title? The word alone conjures such rich imagery. You know there’s going to be murder, darkness, fire and, of course, monks and you can almost hear the violent clashing of swords.

I also went through a heady phase at university when I was enamoured of everything Italian, especially Venice. Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb and Michael Dibdin are all old favourites.

Reading my list of favourite books, it looks as though I have a thing for titles which feature the word rose. But then in the medieval world, the rose was not just a rose. It was a powerful symbol of Christian imagery especially the Virgin Mary, the universe, purity, loyalty and love.

theapothecaryrose thewhiterosemurders thenameoftherose