Louise Penny has always possessed a “voice”, a recognizable prose style and way of telling a story, but as her career has progressed you can feel the originality and power of her voice increasing. She’s exploring deeply personal themes and rigorously examining her characters from the inside out, giving them a little (or big) shake. While Gamache has some mystery left (and hence some of his own mythic power) there’s lots we’ve learned about him as readers since the publication of Still Life.
“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with the truth is fundamental but cracked…”
Tana French has obviously learned a few lessons from more established writers like Val McDermid and Denise Mina, and her first novel is a richly textured and complex character study as well as a precise explication of a particular crime. There are two main plot threads. One of them involves the disappearance of three 12 year olds twenty years in the past. Two of them were never found; the third is discovered with blood in his shoes clinging to the side of a tree. French infuses the memories of the boy—who is now a police detective—with fairy tale lore and language, giving the past an almost dreamy, otherwordly quality. In an early version of Cinderella, for example, the stepsister cuts off bits of her feet to fit into Cinderella’s slipper, so the slippers are filled with blood. Even the title, In the Woods, references the location of most fairy tales. French comes back again and again to the theme that children think differently—on the slim chance of seeing some kind of “marvel”, they’ll take a bigger risk, unheeded, because of their very youth. This gives her narrative a good deal of power and resonance.
Our book club recently read and enjoyed Jane Casey’s first novel, The Burning, prompting me to turn to her second, The Reckoning. Casey’s series is a British police procedural centered on Maeve Kerrigan, an ambitious, hard working, clueless-about-her-lovelife young woman who may remind readers of Helen Mirren’s indelible Jane Tennison. Though Kerrigan is younger than Tennison, even all these years later, she’s experiencing the some of the same kind of sexism and suspicion ladled on Tennison.
The two signature books of the summer, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Tana French’s Broken Harbor, share a theme: the recession, joblessness, and the losses that come with those circumstances. In Gone Girl, Flynn’s characters lose their jobs and investments and are forced to leave Manhattan for the wilds of Missouri, where they are fish out of water.
The former Dubliners in French’s novel, Pat and Jenny, find their dream home in a development that never “developed,” far out from the city and away from any of their friends or former lifestyle. And their move was made for the most prosaic of reasons: so their kids could grow up in a real house with a backyard. Like Flynn’s characters, Pat has lost his job, and the development is a ghost town.
This may be the most traditional of Louise Penny’s now four novels, though she has been labeled from the beginning as a “traditional” mystery writer. And indeed, she does write in the same tradition as Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Agatha Christie (a tradition they helped create), but she has managed to make this old form her own. She has an exceptional gift with prose, and the character development she brings to her writing is very modern. In each book, Penny has managed to slightly change up her formula to make each story feel fresh, and this one is no exception.
This is an elegantly written, compelling, and masterful first novel. If I were a betting woman I’d advise anyone interested in such things to lay aside a first edition; I plan to myself. It has so many wonderful aspects of a traditional mystery, somehow brought into the present and made fresh by the kind of lovely writing that is a rare discovery. My advance copy has pages and pages dog-eared so I could go back and reread various passages. The setting, a remote and tiny Canadian village called Three Pines, is visited by the death of one of its most beloved residents, retired school teacher Jane Neal. The head of the homicide division of the Surete in Quebec, Inspector Armand Gamache, is sent with his team to Three Pines to investigate. It’s hard to say what’s the more interesting part of this novel — Inspector Gamache himself, the setting, or the vividly drawn citizens of Three Pines, including the dead Jane Neal who we come to know as we read the book.
We have sold so many copies of Louise Penny’s fine first novel, Still Life, that I know I am not the only one captivated by this delightful writer. Happily, there is now a second installment out, just as beautifully written as the first. The first book was about the death of a much beloved character; the second book is about the death of a woman universally hated. Penny’s novels are set in the tiny Canadian village of Three Pines – the crimes are investigated, however, by the Quebec Surete, bringing a refreshing breath of police practicality to the whole affair. The setting is very Canadian, and no more so than in this novel, where the victim is killed in a bizarre electrocution during a curling match. This is a complex novel, full of subplots and interrelated emotional connections. The emotional connections all tie together by the end of the book, though, so the circuitous path Penny chooses to arrive at her destination is more than worthwhile.
Louise Penny’s books are really about appreciating the many joys of life – friendship, community, good food, beauty – so I think the murder part both keeps them grounded and gives them (obviously) a narrative impetus. Reading this one for the second time I was struck both by the careful structure and the theme – what’s under the surface. It has a very scary opening. Set during Easter in the idyllic Three Pines, there’s still the acerbic Ruth Zardo to point out that it’s a bad idea to leave chocolate eggs outside – and then there’s a very scary seance and separate haunted house scene, which Penny builds to carefully and effectively. I love when mystery writers play with these traditional kind of tropes – in this case a haunted house – and then proceed to build on it, which is just what Penny does.
As with many gifted writers, Louise Penny has certain themes she tends to come back to and examine, and one of her major themes, through all the books, is the danger of being paralyzed by the past and refusing to change. Other writers who share this trait, off the top of my head, would be Thomas Cook (family relationships), S.J. Bolton (mysterious dark forces), William Kent Krueger (loyalty) and Elizabeth George (communication). They all have essential issues that concern them, and one way or another, that’s what all their books are about. It also makes their books more interesting.
At this point in Louise Penny’s career—a mere five books into her Inspector Gamache series—we already have to post a notecard in a prominent place behind the counter so we can easily answer the question, “When does the next Louise Penny book come out?” Happily, this year is a double dip —we’ve already gotten A Rule Against Murder earlier this year. I’m as greedy a reader as the next person, and am just as delighted as anyone to get to the next installment in this wonderful series.