APOLOGIA: In Which One Modern Mystery Causes Me to Reflect on Too Many Issues for One Post . . . and Asks You to Come Along for the Ride!

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A few months ago, I told you I would never buy a Louise Penny mystery again, for a host of reasons you can feel free to check out here. But Penny is fun to listen to in the car, so last week I went to the library and checked out Glass Houses, the thirteenth in her series featuring Armand Gamache (now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec) and all his friends and family in Three Pines, that Canadian Brigadoon on the Quebec/Vermont border. It features a typical Penny plot:

  • There is a murder investigation, and it is linked to, and/or balanced with, a larger societal crisis – in this case, the assault upon Canada by drug cartels;
  • Once again, there’s a “Gamache Vs. The World” plot, where our Christ-like hero is undervalued, underestimated, and blamed for every mess in the world. I will say that for once Gamadge’s choice of actions is seriously questionable, which adds a soupçon of suspense.
  • Penny provides a further chapter in the popular continuing serial, Welcome to Three Pines. In this episode, it’s Myrna’s turn to provide the link to the novel’s murder plot by being the link to the novel’s suspect list; Olivier is losing his hair, while Gabri complains about being given short shrift in the plot; Ruth and her duck Rosa waddle drunkenly throughout the village; Clara the artist has either a crisis or a breakthrough in her craft; and everyone eats a lot of breakfasts at the Bistro, lunches at Sûreté headquarters, and dinners in the Gamaches’ cozy dining room.
  • Most of all, there’s a theme. In Penny’s work, there are always themes. She uses the conventions of the police procedural to tackle Big Ideas, like the nature of good and evil, the importance of community, and the way life is only worthwhile if you fill it with nature, art and good food. In Glass Houses, the theme is conscience.

If the plot is typical, Penny does take a risk in terms of structure. The novel begins at the end, with the murder committed and a suspect arraigned. On page one, the trial is already underway, and Superintendent Gamache has taken the stand. His testimony will lead to a series of flashbacks detailing the case. It soon becomes clear that nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Why is the Crown being so hard on its key witness? Why does Gamache commit perjury? Who is the unnamed defendant, and is he or she actually guilty of the murder? If not, why is this person standing trial?

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Penny never plays particularly fair in her mysteries – few modern authors do – but this title has a clear suspect list, and readers may find themselves going back and forth wondering who the killer may be until the end. Like most of her books, this one is also part thriller in its depiction of the attempt to bring down the drug cartels that have steadily gained the upper hand over the police; as usual, the thriller element is a bit more . . . um, thrilling than the mystery part. It’s a bit overlong and trod familiar territory that the author covered better when the series was young, but it wasn’t bad. I think longtime fans of Penny’s will enjoy this one and find the ending touching.

I have another reason for bringing up Penny again, however. At the end of the audiobook, Robert Bathurst, the actor who narrated the book, engages in an illuminating conversation with Penny, and I have to say I have a lot of respect for the challenges an author faces writing a series. For one thing, one does not want to fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over again. A series writer also has to balance the central mystery of each book with the continuing saga of the series regulars. Penny is working with nine characters that show up, in some fashion, in every book. And with few exceptions, such as the first book Still Life, none of these folks have been seriously considered as suspects. Therefore, Penny needs to add another half dozen or so characters to populate the mystery portion of each title. Most of these characters are one-shot figures, moving to the village (or residing in some hitherto unmentioned residence) and then disappearing. And then there are the characters who might figure into the thriller: the authority figures, some of them corrupt, who either assist or antagonize Gamache and his crew.

It’s a lot to juggle, and Penny doesn’t always confine this process to one novel. There was actually one title – I won’t mention which – where one of her regulars did come under suspicion and ended up being selected as the murderer and jailed. That’s where the novel ended, folks, and the next title picked up where that one left off, surprisingly exonerating the series regular and finding the real killer. (And this was the “B” story!)

In her interview, Penny admits that she envisions a serial format throughout her writing career but doesn’t necessarily have everything mapped out. Thus, a plot point introduced in one novel might be dropped and forgotten, while another is allowed to fester through several books and lead to serious changes for her character. In this fashion, Penny actually killed off a tenth regular character a few novels back. I have to hand it to her: Elizabeth George did the same thing, and it shattered that series for me, not because I worshipped the woman she killed off (although she was lovely) but because the motivation for this death was so random. Penny, one the other hand, had created a plot arc for Clara Morrow that started in book one and continued throughout the series, changing her as an artist and causing a ripple effect to her marriage. It was extremely well handled, I thought.

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One of the things that bothered me about this novel – and it gets my goat whenever I visit Three Pines – was the extraordinary amount of coincidence we were asked to swallow to make this plot viable. Gamache himself comments on it halfway through the novel:

“Just seems a bit of a coincidence doesn’t it?” said Gamache. “Here we are in a tiny village few even know exists, and who arrives but the only four people on earth who can tie Anton to that death.”

Lacoste and Beauvoir nodded. Coincidences were not uncommon in murder investigations. Just as they weren’t uncommon in life. It would be foolish to read too much into it. But it would be equally foolish not to wonder.

We who read mysteries understand that there is an unavoidably formulaic quality about them. Call it a confluence of events that must occur if a mystery is to happen. This is especially true with GAD crime fiction, and rather than complain about it, true fans expect it. In fact, we revel in it. What will the closed setting be this time, we ask? Who will comprise the suspect list? Who will be killed, and what clues will lie in wait for a sleuth to discover? We expect some form of investigation, some sense of progress and perhaps some impediments – like a second or third murder – that lead to a denouement where all is revealed. (That’s why the Penny title I alluded to above felt so odd – who enjoys reading a mystery without a true solution?)

To a large extent, classic authors wrote standalone mysteries; even those featuring series characters could be read in any order without confusion. Yes, there was an arc for Peter Wimsey, where he met, courted and married Harriet Vane. The romantic subplot spanning several titles occurred for many series characters, including Nigel Strangeways, Bobby Owen, Dr. Basil Willing, Peter Duluth, and Roderick Alleyn. (In a mystery, it is considered “meeting cute” for a sleuth’s lady fair to be introduced as a suspect in a murder case.) None of this had much effect on an author’s output.

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Rarely, though, did a prolific author engage in serialized storytelling. Poirot and Miss Marple slowly got older, if that was possible, but their methods remained the same. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale changed not a jot. Ellery Queen went through serious emotional turmoil during his Third Period – I have to admit it’s one of the reasons I love those books – but it all got dropped in the final cases.

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What this meant was that coincidence, that hoary plot device that most authors of literature try to use sparingly or utterly avoid, was not really a problem in classic mysteries. Is it odd that every time Hercule Poirot took a vacation, he got embroiled in a murder? What’s odd to me is that any intelligent murderer would proceed with his plans when he learns that Poirot is on board. But we accept this as one of the conventions of a classic crime story. At least Poirot is a recognized authority on crime and likely to be called in, whereas Miss Marple is merely a private citizen, But you know what? I gave a lot of thought to the Marple Question. I tallyed up the dozen novels in which she appears and realized that St. Mary Mead wasn’t the magnet for capital crime we might have imagined. Over the course of thirty five years, only three murder cases cropped up (more if you count the short stories, but not that much more). It’s true that Miss Marple would have done well to not take her nephew Raymond up on his offers to pay for a vacation. This led her to spa treatments for her rheumatism in Chipping Cleghorn (A Murder Is Announced), a visit with Raymond himself and his wife (Sleeping Murder) and vacations to the Caribbean and Bertram’s Hotel, both of which ended with multiple deaths. In the other five novels, there is no coincidence: Miss Marple is actually consulted by friends to assist on local murder cases.

Does this element work as well in modern mysteries? Compare Miss Marple to the Midsomer Murders series, which has become unbearably formulaic, not only because every one of six dozen villages houses a serial killer, but because the culprits all behave in drearily identical fashion. And what about Three Pines? In her interview, Penny describes the village as a metaphor – for love, for home, for heaven on earth. It’s so small that it doesn’t appear on any map. It’s so off the beaten path that wi-fi reception is, at best, spotty. (I’m just waiting for the final book in the series to reveal that every resident is a ghost or an angel!)

I think this puts extra pressure on Penny to come up with credible reasons why so many terrible things happen in one secluded little village. I’m not just talking about the tensions that naturally occur between long-time residents that might result in murder, (although there really isn’t a lot of tension in Three Pines). I’m talking about this particular village housing a vital war weapon bomb or notorious people hiding from situations that have national, if not international significance. In Glass Houses alone, the village becomes the meeting point of choice for a cabal of drug lords and the place where a number of other folks happen to meet up who knew each other in the past, where a long ago tragedy engenders the arrival of a cobrador del frac.

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What, you ask, is a cobrador del frac? You’ll find out in this novel (although the author admits that some of the history you are given is real and some is made up for plot purposes). The point is, I find it odd that so many characters here look out the door and say, “Oh-oh! There goes the cobrador del frac!” when this is not particularly common knowledge. The reader has to be brought up to speed with a load of exposition to understand why the appearance of this figure should fill anyone with dread, enough dread that the entire village goes berserk for a minute. It’s an interesting story, I’ll grant you, and of course a cobrador del frac could turn up anywhere, so it might as well turn up in Mystery Village. But the way the experience is handled feels so artificial in a novel that, being modern day, is ostensibly less artificial than a Golden Age mystery.

I’m rambling, I know! And, to be honest, I don’t think there’s a conclusion I feel the need to make here. I hope that this odd post engenders some conversation . . . about set-ups in mysteries, about the idea of a particular place being a constant hotbed of vice, about the contract an author makes with his readers to deliver certain goods. As mystery plots have changed (along with authors’ preoccupations), have expectations of delivery to the reader changed with them? Things we accepted in the 1930’s and 40’s – that Gideon Fell’s investigations would always yield an impossible crime, that Hildegarde Withers, elementary school teacher, would be a magnet for murder, that no country house during the Christmas holidays would emerge unscathed – do these things still follow in modern crime stories?

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Go ahead, say it – should I just calm down?

 

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10 thoughts on “APOLOGIA: In Which One Modern Mystery Causes Me to Reflect on Too Many Issues for One Post . . . and Asks You to Come Along for the Ride!

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve only read one novel by Louise Penny, and the resolution did have one or two clues to its credit. But I wasn’t sure I was going to pick up another of her novels, as they seem to have too little mystery plot for their gargantuan lengths.

    I agree that it’s implausible for Gideon Fell or Jane Marple to encounter that many crimes within the span of their lives within the canon of novels they appear in. But the problem for me is that Penny and many other modern crime authors take much longer to tell their tale in order to transcend beyond the limitations of puzzle-oriented fiction. And so the modern crime novel sets itself a higher bar in terms of verisimilitude?

    I’m an avid follower of the Kindaichi manga, and it’s entirely implausible that a teenager encounters, even solves, that many crimes – without either being a fictional construct, or going mad. But then again, the genre the Kindaichi manga operates within does not set itself up to clear a high bar of realism.

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    1. There is a funny difference between Young Kindaichi and Conan/Case Closed here by the way. In Young Kindaichi, they still try to pretend it’s a rare occurance for Hajime and Miyuki to run into murder, even though half of the people at Fudo High School turns into a murder victim, and the other half the murderer. I mean, almost every first chapter of a new story ends with Hajime narrating “But as we approached [NEW LOCATION], I could never have imagined it would turn into a stage for murder.” even though it ALWAYS becomes a stage for murder.

      In Conan however, even the characters themselves make jokes how the Sleeping Mori and Conan always seem to attract murders whenever they go out. It knows it’s a horribly artificial construct, and totally rolls with the fakeness of it.

      And oh-my-god there were so many people killed in that game crossover of Conan and Kindaichi. Never cross the streams!

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  2. I think part of the difficulty with this meeting of styles in modern crime fiction is that need to include “some reality” — drug dealers, controversies around immgration, the prevalence of gun crime — is immediately at odds with the confluence of events you talk about. We all know Christie largely went off the rails once she had to work in some modern changes to her plots (The Clocks, Third Girl, etc) and Carr’s novels are the very zenith of false construction, it’s with the introduction of “some reality” that things often totter and tumble down there.

    Also, modern crime fiction is committed to the realness of crime because “no-one is interested in puzzles”, so athors who have very litle practice in writing puzzle plots are always going to stuff it up somewhere along the line. There’s a new Robert Crais book out at the end of the year, and I’ll be reading it not at all for the plot of the mystery — sad to say, that aspect seems to elude him now — but because it’s a fun blast through contemporary LA with some good jokes. There’s nothing wrong with reading Penny beause the soap opera aspect appeals, so long as you know that’s why you’re reading it!

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  3. You make some interesting points here, Brad. I happen to like Penny’s work very much; that aside, though, you do make a fair point about the small town setting. It is really hard to craft that sort of setting and make murder within it believable. After all, how many murderers can really be in Cabot Cove? And as far as improbability goes, I see your point there, too. For me, anyway, it’s a matter of deciding how much disbelief I’m willing to suspend.

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  4. These comments are really inspiring me to give some thought as to why I am a reader! I have no doubt that I read to escape as much as I read to be enlightened about the human condition. I do think that the mystery fiction I enjoy gives me both of those things. You make some interesting points, all of you, about the uneasy partnership between modern crime fiction and realism. I do like the soap opera aspects of Louise Penny, and I do think they juxtapose awkwardly with the crime aspect of her fiction. She admits herself that she conceived of Three Pines as a sort of Shangri-La, and yet she populates that lovely village with the most despicable felons. Yes, Gamache encounters many of these murderers through his work, but . . .

    Oh, well! My life is too stressful to brood overmuch about one of its most pleasurable things. As Margot suggests, you just have to find your limits.

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  5. JJ said the following: “think part of the difficulty with this meeting of styles in modern crime fiction is that need to include “some reality” — drug dealers, controversies around immgration, the prevalence of gun crime — is immediately at odds with the confluence of events you talk about.

    I’ve to agree with JJ here. A problem with modern crime-fiction, particularly the ones attempting to play on the classic themes, is maintaining the difficult split between past and present, which doesn’t always work and a lot of writers today are clueless when it comes to plotting. Even writers who are well versed in the classics and know how to plot, and clue, can make some ugly missteps. Case in point, the Michael Vlado short stories by the late Edward Hoch.

    Hoch tried to take a more modern approach with the Vlado series and there are a number of stories about sordid, drug-related crimes, Russian mobsters, violent robberies and racism. And they simply did not work as well as his other series. The absolute low-point was a story from the late 1990s, “The Starkworth Atrocity,” in which Vlado acts on behalf of the EU as an observer in a refugee crisis and the plot, uncharacteristically for Hoch, is an absolute train-wreck. He was trying way too hard to be topical and socially relevant in that one.

    Now compare that story to the gems of the series, the Hake Talbot-like “The Gypsy’s Paw” and the imaginative “Punishment for a Gypsy.” Are they realistic? Or even plausible? Hardly! But they worked as clever detective stories and were fun to read, which is what made them stand out even more in this largely undistinguished series. If you want to explore this topic/problem, you should consider taking a stab at Hoch’s The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth.

    Bill Pronzini should be mentioned for his approach to the problem of how to combine the styles of different eras: he simply lets them all happen in the universe inhabited by his nameless detective. Hoodwink and Scattershot were published back-to-back and, between them, there are no less than five impossible crimes, but those two titles were swiftly followed by Dragonfire – a hardboiled thriller complete with gang violence. Or his locked room novella, “Booktaker,” which should be immediately followed by one of the darkest title in the nameless series, Shackles. Why or how is something you should find out for yourself, but these two inherently different stories are inextricably linked.

    So, yeah, what I was trying to say before trailing off that you can have a classic detective story in a modern setting, but only if the author actually writes a detective story. And not a modern crime novel or police procedure disguised as one. And knows how to plot or clue. If you can do that, I don’t care too much if the author turns one half of a small village in victims and the other half in their murderers.

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    1. Elizabeth George told me herself that she likes to think of her books as novels with murder in them, ones that people will reread. Early on, I enjoyed the soap opera aspects of her books, and the crime stories weren’t half bad. But she went way off the rails a long time ago, and now what we have are weak crime stories and weak soap opera. Yet George is a better stylist than Penny, with some beautiful prose. I wish a good editor had taken her in hand.

      The Scandinavians have their cops bring their work home with them, which is why all the Wallanders and Harry Holes have drinking and other health problems, bad or no marriages and children who despise them. (Although Camilla Lackberg is having the same problem as Penny, where her heroine finds murder every time she decides to clean out a room of the house.) I haven’t read Tana French, but am I correct in saying that every member of her police force seems to have a distinct past full of secrets that allows for new mysteries? According to many friends, it makes for gripping reading, but I’m not sure it makes for lucid detective novels.

      Gentlemen, we may have figured out why the classic mystery cannot survive on the modern literary scene!

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  6. I disagree that Penny is not really fair play. I read her first six books and used to champion her as the leader in a fair play renaissance. I solved the impossibility of the murder method in THE RULE AGAINST MURDER (aka THE MURDER STONE) based on a single clue. I did however lose interest in the series when she began to use her books (as so many contemporary crime writers do) as a platform for her social critic role. Minette Walters did the same thing in her later career and she lost her zing and sting and became utterly boring.

    I’m also not at all critical of coincidence in any form of fiction. Real life abounds in bizarre coincidences and no one dismisses it then. I have never understood the rigidity in not accepting coincidence in fiction. Often the use of coincidence in mystery plotting is used ironically because what appears to be coincidental is part of a sinister design.

    I’m tired of reading about this generalization about modern crime fiction and realism. I’ve just started returning to contemporary crime fiction with relish. I’ve found an ample amount of imaginative work in the field that defies all the supposed rules of what modern crime novels are supposed to be. There is a richness out there waiting to be discovered. You just need to avoid the “blockbuster” and bestselling writers and pass over the hoards of cloned books with those boring typographical dust jackets that always signal to me dreary formulaic plot populated with cookie cutter characters. I’m always disappointed in them. Look to the smaller presses and you’ll find a wealth of retro traditional mysteries with imaginative story telling, puzzling plots, genuine clueing, and freshly alive situations scrubbed clean of the gritty realism and all soap opera rinsed free.

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    1. Whew! It took me lots of fancy finger work to get your comment approved, John!

      The first draft of this post was twice as long, so long that I had divided it into chapters. Chapter Three was a humorous and totally unnecessary anecdote about a double coincidence that happened to me at the movies two weeks ago. I won’t bore you with it, but suffice it to say that I totally agree that coincidences exist in real life. When I did a little research on the word, I had to giggle a bit at the long-standing philosophical arguments surrounding coincidence – like, it doesn’t exist but is the hand of Fate dealing you a card. I’m not high enough on the food chain to know about that! I think coincidences happen, and when they do they’re pretty cool!

      I also think there are many instances in literature where coincidence is employed effectively. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word; perhaps I should have stuck with “confluence of events.” And perhaps I should leave well enough alone regarding the artifice of murder constantly revisiting the same place. It is the hallmark of many mystery series, and I don’t know why I should complain about it here and now. Just starting a conversation, I guess. But I think some folks got the point that the artifice doesn’t always sit so well in a modern setting, especially when the author is both utilizing and fighting classic mystery tropes like Penny sometimes does.

      I just wrote a post about an Ellery Queen novel and began it with thoughts about how books today are publicized. The small presses have a hard time getting the word out, so I depend on fellow bloggers and Amazon, which tracks my purchase history, for recommendations. I do avoid the “hoards of cloned books with boring typographical dust jackets” and I’m always on the lookout for good recommendations.

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