“Adieu, Gamache” may sound like an allergic reaction, but I can assure you, this issue is nothing to sneeze at. Today I am calling attention to a fault within myself and, in true scholarly fashion, trying to assign the blame to others. Attend!
I freely admit that I have contradictory tastes. I like my hotel rooms modern and my restaurant meals trendy. I think television shows today are better written than classic TV. (Except for sitcoms! Where is the likes of a Dick Van Dyke Show, a Mary Tyler Moore, or an early Norman Lear?) I love all movies with a passion, old and new, although I have a sneaking suspicion that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
When it comes to music and books, however, I consider myself an “old soul.” No one will ever accuse me of having a cutting edge taste in music. Give me Ella, show tunes, Motown and 60’s pop any day. It’s how I was raised. When other six-year-olds were singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” I could croon a rendition of “Blue Moon” that would bring you to tears. I didn’t accept the Beatles until my mother professed a fondness for “Yesterday.”
As for books . . . I’ve read a lot of modern fiction but it’s not my go to place! I went through my classics phase, devouring Dickens (that took a while) and Austen, with a smattering of Dostoevsky and a broad survey of the American Great Books. But for most of my life, there has been a stack of mystery novels on the bedside table. As anyone who frequently visits this spot will tell you, my preference is for the old stuff: Christie, Carr, Queen, and the rest. That’s not to say that I didn’t read contemporary mystery fiction, but even there I gravitated toward those writers who at least paid tribute to the concept of the classic whodunit, with the victim, suspects, and detective comfortably ensconced in a closed circle setting, and the clues neatly arrayed to pull the wool over this reader’s eyes. So I’ve missed the colorful humor of Elmore Leonard, the twisty darkness of Dennis Lehane or Barbara Vine, and I’ve avoided the British procedurals and the American female private eyes. I regret not having read any of Colin Dexter yet, but regular attendance at Sergio’s blog provides a reminder that I must remedy that, and soon.
I read through all of Patricia Moyes’ books. Until the end, her mysteries were classic in form, if not especially enlivening in style. I’ll admit it: I read all of P.D. James. I would speak more kindly of her if she hadn’t publicly – and frequently – expressed her sense of superiority over Christie. James contended that, unlike Dame Agatha, she was attempting to use the mystery genre to enlighten us about the human condition. On the one hand, who’s to say Christie did not accomplish this very thing? And on the other hand, James may have had loftier goals, but her crime stories got lost in the endless psychological insights, the lengthy depiction of place, and the latest, slow-moving installment of the soap opera that was Adam Dalgliesh’s life,. By the end of her career, it was extremely hard for me to care about anybody in her books.
Then there’s Elizabeth George. Ah, I’m very disappointed in Elizabeth George. Everything started out so promising with A Great Deliverance. It’s not what you could call a classic whodunit, but it somehow worked as one, and it introduced the pairing of noble Thomas Lynley and shlubby Barbara Havers. The next few novels adhered even better to classic tropes, with strongly plotted mysteries brimming with clever twists. Yes, there was a distinctly modern inclusion of every form of perversion, along with the tendency to turn the detective’s lives into turgid serial drama, but, in general, I have no issue with perversity, and I found myself rooting for Lynley to makes things right with Helen, for Simon to forgive Lynley for that crippling accident – no, really forgive him – and for poor Barbara to find love or, at least, to eat better.
I met Ms. George twice at book signings. What a charming, erudite woman she is! The first time, I didn’t want to appear to be a fawning fan in person, so I made my greetings brief and then handed her a letter I had written. To my astonishment, she wrote me back! It was a lovely response, too!
But something happened to George’s books. They started to get longer and longer and to shed their initial cleverness. In Playing for the Ashes, it took her something like six pages to describe the murder scene. More and more, the endless psychological insight of the Jamesian variety (P.D., not Henry) encroached on the puzzle, and the soap opera of the series characters’ lives began to pall. When would Deborah St. James stop being so insecure around Simon? When would Barbara get a clue about how to dress and how to behave around people?
And then, in With No One as Witness, Ms. George decided to “change things up” by killing off a regular series character. Today, this happens at the drop of a hat on TV series, but in 2005 it was perhaps a riskier proposition. Fans fiercely guard the characters they love and are resistant to change. But she explained it, this decision gave the author and her readers a chance to experience even more of the emotional trauma she tried to imbue in each of her works, and it allowed her the opportunity to jump start her creative engines which she felt were growing complacent, if not stale.
It also wrecked the series. The intense grief shared amongst this circle of characters intruded on the cases and reduced the books to a depressive puddle. I say “reduced” figuratively: the novels actually got longer. Much, much longer! I love mysteries, folks, but no genre fiction should reach 800 pages. (It’s why I tend to avoid fantasy novels.) Imagine trying to maintain an investigation, a puzzle, or any sense of suspense over a book of that length. In the latter half of her oeuvre, Elizabeth George makes an excellent case that it can’t be done. In consequence, I donated all my hardcover George novels to the library in order to open up some shelf space at home. (I kept one – Deception on His Mind – because she had signed it.) I currently have her two latest novels on my Kindle. The last one has sat there, unread, for over a year . . .
I bought the Kindle about eight years ago because I thought it would be cool to have a light device to carry onto a plane. As a sort of ritual, I decided to christen it with a mystery author new to me. I don’t remember how or why I picked Louise Penny. I think the writer herself might say it was the fickle finger of fate that brought us together, but I suspect there was a sale on her first mystery, Still Life. Here’s the blurb that caught my eye:
“Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surêté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, just north of the U.S. border, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in these remote woods, and is soon certain that Jane Neal died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bow hunter. Still Life introduces not only an engaging series hero in Inspector Gamache, who commands his forces—and this series—with integrity and quiet courage, but also a winning and talented new writer of traditional mysteries in the person of Louise Penny.”
Here we have a series of “traditional mysteries,” set in a village, which I love. And the Canadian setting provides something a bit new from the British hamlets I grew up with. Check! As an added bonus, the plot set-up reminded me of one of my favorite debuts: Caroline Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. I read and loved all of Carolyn Graham’s mysteries. We who have watched Midsomer Murders devolve into something utterly formulaic on TV still remember how full of surprises and fun an Inspector Barnaby novel could be. I highly recommend them.
But back to Penny –
The village in question here, Three Pines, is a tiny idyllic Brigadoon of a place – invisible on any map – where people get murdered with alarming regularity. (I can’t help but think of Peter Pan singing “Neverland”: “It’s not on any chart, You must find it with your heart.”) Every newcomer to Three Pines makes a similar entrance, stumbling out of the forest, whether by car or on foot, and reaching their destination as if by Fate. Their initial annoyance at not being able to access the Internet (a curtain of mystery seems to block out all signals) subsides when they discover that all the food is delicious and all the people are charming and amiable (or gruff and amiable, or shrill and amiable . . . you get the picture.)
Gamache shows up for his first investigation and quickly becomes so invested in the people and the place, in protecting its Eden-like qualities from the brutal outside world, that he unofficially designates it a haven and does all sorts of illegal things to ensure the safety of its inhabitants. By the tenth book, Gamache and his wife have retired there, and you would think the series would come to an end. Ah, but that is not to be.
In an early interview about her first novel, Penny ponders its success in an age where, according to “reliable” sources, the traditional village mystery is not selling.
“Frankly I think fashions change and it’s possible in this time of unease and uncertainty there’s a return to yearning for tradition. For places where you know your neighbor and the person behind the counter, where there’s a clear sense of belonging and community. Where kindness, not cynicism, is a currency and goodness exists . . .
“The other advantage I have is Quebec. Perhaps village mysteries set in the UK would be less appealing to Britons, but like Alexander McCall Smith and Botswana, I have a somewhat exotic and unplumbed setting. I intentionally made the small Quebecois village, and the bilingual/bicultural nature of Quebec, a character in the story. I love where I live and am very grateful to be living here, and I love the people in this community. And, sometimes, I love killing them off. Of course, all the bad guys are fictional.”
Despite aligning herself traditional, even cozy mysteries, Louise Penny is a canny modern author. She has a strong presence on social media and maintains an active website. She knows how to promote herself. This is in no way a criticism of her; in these days of shaky publishing practices, it is a necessity. I can only wonder if Agatha Christie, publicity-shy as she was, would be the success she is today if her career had begun ten years ago instead of nearly a hundred. Penny converses with her fans. She attends multiple signings and events. She opens up about her personal life. Recently, her husband passed away from dementia, and she described in detail how this experience affected her writing, both in the afterward to her last novel and the pre-publicity for her next one. Such openness causes readers to become as invested in the writer as in their writing.
And as far as her writing goes, there are some things at which she is very good. She pinpoints one of her greatest strengths in the quote above, and that is her handling of the simmering conflicts within the “bilingual/bicultural” world of Quebec. The French hate the English and the English hate the French, and many of her stories are imbued with this all-too-factual feud that rages even today in northeastern Canada. There is also the matter of the interpersonal relationships between her characters. This is a series that must be read in order, or people will seriously scratch their heads over what is going on. Characters fall in love and get married. Marriages that were thriving undergo traumatic, life-altering, and permanent changes. People fight, and their argument might last over two or three novels. One character suffers a serious drug addiction. Another dies. It is to Penny’s credit that this death, while it affected everyone in the community, did not make the same mistake that Elizabeth George did and plunge everyone – including her readers – into unremittent gloom.
In addition to the mystery of the hour, each book chronicles our hero, Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete de Quebec, battling institutionalized corruption in the highest offices of the police and the government. This slightly rotund, middle-aged man is very much a saint, no matter how much Penny tries to show us his flaws. Because, really, what the author is trying to do here is to portray the spiritual battle between good and evil in the guise of a series of crime novels, and in Gamache she has created a sort of angel. In his marriage, his relationships to friends and confederates, and his dealings as a detective, he is “practically perfect in every way,” and his utter goodness makes him the prey of every lowlife who has managed to rise in the ranks of each bureaucratic organization in Canada. This allows Penny to raise the stakes in her war between good and evil to nearly epic proportions and to cast a highly spiritual tone over the proceedings.
I like some of the other characters very much. As dully perfect as Gamache’s marriage to Reine-Marie is, his relationships to his subordinates, especially the gorgeous but troubled Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have had some nice ups and downs. The marriage between village artist Clara Morrow (one of my favorite characters) and her husband Peter was a saga in itself. Watching Clara emerge as an artist of great note as her spouse seethed with self-destructive jealousy made for good fiction.
Other characters are unfortunately more one-note, to the point of occasional stereotype: there’s the gay couple, Olivier and Gabri, who run the local bed and breakfast and seethe with witty ripostes; there’s Myrna, the psychologist turned bookstore owner, who is constantly reduced in description to “the heavy, black lady.” And then there’s Ruth Nardo, half brilliant poet/half bag lady, with a foul mouth and a way of dealing with people and events that is so inconsistent as to be a source of great annoyance. (What’s with the duck, Ruth?)
But none of these irritants matters a jot next to the major problem I have with Louise Penny. And although it has become an annual habit for me to download the latest Gamache novel onto my Kindle, this bigger issue is causing me to rethink our relationship.
Here’s the thing: Penny’s novels have some nice character arcs and some great menus (everybody is constantly eating, and eating well), but the mysteries themselves are . . . just . . . plain . . . lousy. The set-up may be intriguing in terms of place: a monastery, the Police Academy, a haunted house that belonged to the murderer from a previous novel. I figure a body has been found in the living room or backyard of nearly every series character, too. Then we expand the story. Usually, Gamache’s attentions are split between a “personal” crime and a larger issue. (This is where all that police corruption comes in.) More than likely, the two cases are somehow intertwined, but this often creates a narrative logjam from which Penny can barely extricate herself.
Penny’s writing style is almost fey: short, simple sentences with quick flips in point of view and plenty of repetition to underscore what is IMPORTANT. Clues abound, but often they are as metaphorical as the prose. Being a series, some of the character interactions have been reduced to a shorthand found in every book: we can expect certain exchanges between characters (“Fag!” “Hag!”) and plenty of meals where everyone takes a break from the murder next store and celebrates life and friendship. There is almost always a character who represents the “outsider”: he or she is misunderstood by everyone – and is angry and bitter at being misunderstood – but he/she melts under Gamache’s tender attentions and re-enters society not whole but healed. This person is not to be confused with the genuine outsider, always more adept at masking their antipathy toward the inherent perfection of Three Pines, who comes in with a sense of entitlement – and, more often than not, leaves the place in shackles.
Equally problematical is the way Penny ends her novels. Of course, a true mystery fan needs to be given a satisfactory solution, but in a Three Pines novel, this is not always guaranteed. Occasionally the murderer’s identity is both shocking and clever, as in The Nature of the Beast (although it took a very long time for us to get to that solution.) Other times, it’s almost as if the ending doesn’t matter as much as the lessons learned and the way relationships have been altered amongst our Three Pines pals. In one outrageous, Gamache announces the identity of the killer and the name blows apart all the relationships in the book and devastates the fans. In the following novel, Gamache decides that he was wrong about his solution, re-opens the case, and finds the correct killer, thereby negating all the emotional sturm und drang that we had previously experienced.
In the most recently published volume in the series, A Great Reckoning, Gamache, who, due to more circumstances than I care to get into here, has retired from the force and moved to his beloved Three Pines, accepts an offer to run the Police Academy where he confronts old enemies from earlier battles against corruption and turns every troubled student into a model cop. The whole thing is connected in some bizarre fashion to the finding of an old map hidden in the wall at the Three Pines bistro, although the two cases never really gel. The final third of the novel feels like a series of endings reminiscent of The Return of the King, as revelation after revelation makes us reel in faint surprise until it all comes back to a very disappointing conclusion. The final two words of the novel are supposed to really rattle us, as well as make the case for Gamache’s ultimate sainthood feel even more inevitable.
For a reader like me, who has embraced the concept of “fair play” in his mystery reading, the complete absence of it in books like these is frustrating in the extreme. And that, in general, is the problem with all modern crime fiction: the puzzle is almost an addendum to “larger” issues. It is perfectly natural for an art form to evolve. As early as the 1930’s, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy Sayers were decrying the limitations imposed on the mystery genre and seeking to expand its perimeters. And expand they did: first, writers broke every rule they had imposed upon themselves. They started experimenting: the mystery combined with the novel of manners, the mystery as social or political critique, the psychological mystery, with emphasis on character over plot. And yet, writers like Berkeley, Sayers, Christie and Queen managed to do this and still create a decent, often magnificent, fair play puzzle plot.
My frustration doesn’t stem from the fact that modern writers have abandoned this careful construction. It is that they consider this abandonment an improvement! They liken the GAD mystery to a board game and consider what they are doing is utilizing some of the basic conventions of a popular genre to shine a light on the human condition, a goal once reserved in theory to the “literary” novel.
Novels like Carr’s He Who Whispers, Queen’s The Murderer Is a Fox and Cat of Many Tails, Sayer’s Gaudy Night, Christie’s Five Little Pigs and A Murder Is Announced, and many other titles have succeeded in merging the mediums. I can’t help but wish that more modern authors would apply their efforts to this same task. Surely the modern mystery reader can expect some attention to be paid to the details of a murder plot, to tying up the loose ends and ensuring that modern sleuths rely as much on their brains as on luck. Surely there are authors around who are adept at this very thing without feeling trapped in a 1930’s template.
I’m open to suggestions. You can even suggest yourself, authors! I’m game.