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.
This novel, the eighth in Penny’s award winning and beloved Armand Gamache series, is yet another variation on the golden age form she uses as a template. This one is basically a classic locked room mystery, though it’s so much more, as are all of Penny’s novels. Set not in Three Pines but in the obscure and remote monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-des-Loups (literally “Among the Wolves”), the victim is a monk, and the only two officers on site are Gamache and Beauvoir.
This is a beautifully constructed book, the form following the theme. The monks of this obscure monastery are world renowned for their beautiful rendering of Gregorian chants, thanks to a recent CD that achieved wide distribution and acclaim. Gregorian chants are sung to a very set and specific set of rules, and are simple and repetitive, the singing and listening both a form of mediation and prayer.
“…You have to suck at it for years until one day your experience pays off and you reach a point where you know what you’re doing.” “It’s like everything else, then, isn’t it?”
I was a big fan of the first book Minotaur published by Ed Lin, Snakes Can’t Run, and I enjoyed this one maybe even a little bit more. Lin’s central character, Robert Chow, is a Chinese American Cop in New York City’s Chinatown circa 1976 (Carter and Ford are battling it out for the presidency). Robert has a good backstory—he’s a Vietnam Vet, he was a drunk but is now sober, and he is now feeling his way through his job, hoping for a detective’s gold shield as well as trying to figure out his relationship with his girlfriend, Lonnie.
It’s hardly necessary to write a review of a Louise Penny book – if you’re a devotee, you’re going to pick this book up no matter what I say – but as all her novels are of a piece but still stand separate from each other, at least in terms of tone, they are well worth discussing individually. She wrapped up one thread with her last masterful novel, Bury Your Dead, and she’s changed tone somewhat and taken a new direction with this novel. Bury Your Dead was an intense, deep novel that wrapped up some emotional threads in a bravura manner. This new novel is a bit less intense but still has plenty to say.
“She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer. On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there. Murder Season. She was floating, drifting. Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness.”
If there is a writer to resemble, it might be a good idea to resemble Michael Connelly. It is no disrespect to say that Robert Ellis’ tightly plotted police procedurals set in LA and featuring homicide detective Lena Gamble resemble Connelly’s Harrry Bosch novels. However, the gender change up makes the whole enterprise fresh. Ellis happily also shares Connelly’s sharp plotting and ability to give the reader a twist that has been fairly laid out for the reader, yet is still a surprise.
There are so many serial killer novels, so little time. There are so many that I gave up reading them long ago, and yet – when I come across one that seems to have a different twist, I can’t help but pick it up. I’ve read a couple others in the past few years that offered a twist – A Curtain Falls, by Stefanie Pintoff, which used a historical perspective; and Children of the Street by Kwei Quartey, which seemed to be (and was) a commentary on the street children of Accra, Ghana, but turned out also to be a twisty serial killer story. R.J. Ellory’s joins that company, though his book is the most traditional of the three.