Monday, September 10, 2012

Louise Penny: Mysteries with a Canadian Accent

Reviewed by Jeanne
About four years ago, I became aware of an author named Louise Penny.  She’d just won the Agatha Award for “Best Novel” for the second year in a row plus a boatload of other awards.  People on DorothyL mentioned her frequently, and almost always admiringly.  Still I put off reading her books.  They were set in Quebec, they were classified as cozy, and people said they’d just love to live in her fictional town of Three Pines.  I envisioned a fluffy little book with a few French exclamations like “Sacre bleu!” and “Quel dommage!” thrown in for flavor. By the time she had won the Agatha for the fourth time in a row not to mention a boatload of other awards, I decided it was past time that I tried her books. 
Chief Inspector Gamache is the head of the homicide department of the province of Quebec.  He’s well respected and commands a great deal of loyalty from his team.  In Still Life, the first book in the series, an elderly woman named Jane Neal is murdered for no apparent reason.  She was well liked and well respected.  She’d lived a quiet life in Three Pines where she had been a teacher to most of the younger residents and had been active with the local Arts Council.  Her friends are shocked and believe that her death must have been some sort of horrible hunting accident.  Gamache and his team come in with no pre-set expectations one way or the other.  They come, as he tells his team, to look, to listen, and to learn.
The first thing I noticed is the wonderful use of language in the books.  There are sentences that just beg to be read aloud. Secondly, that Penny does the most marvelous characters.  At first glance they seem ordinary, folk we’ve encountered many times before in British flavored village mysteries (or should that be flavoured?) novels but then she gently but expertly reveals layers like a parfait, revealing complex people.   There are many touches of humor but it’s nuanced, sometimes absurd but not slapstick.  Many of the characters are fond of quoting poetry but in a natural, not affected way.  I was quite taken with some of the psychological musings, but they never become drearily introspective.  Each character is distinct, which is quite a feat.
Last but certainly not least, Penny uses the Canadian setting brilliantly to tell her story, gently weaving in the natural world and historical context along with current reality.  There are the bits of friction between the French and English speakers but this is never overplayed nor is it ignored; it does come to the forefront a bit more in Bury Your Dead.  There’s a universal quality to the characters, but they’re cast in a distinct setting.
In short, this is indeed a superior mystery series and I’m very glad to have finally discovered it.  If I were to compare it to another mystery series, I’d say it’s most like Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series crossed with P.D. James.  The settings are very different, but both Penny and Maron have wonderful characterizations, strong sense of place, and clear-eyed views are similar. Like James, Penny delves deeply into her characters' psychic landscapes but while James tends to be more clinical and detached, Penny is warmer and more emotional.
I’d be remiss not to add that a coworker whose opinion I respect greatly doesn’t like the series.  She doesn’t like the characters and in a series as character driven as this, that pretty much ends any interest. Every book is not for every reader.
At Ms. Penny’s website, she says the books don’t have to be read in order but the characters do change and grow during the series.  Having now read the the first three, I would highly recommend reading at least book two and three in order.  There is a subplot that weaves through the books and affects the characters strongly.   If you were to start with, say, The Cruelest Month, I don't believe the impact would be nearly as great. 
·         Still Life
·         A Fatal Grace
·         The Cruelest Month
·         A Rule Against Murder
·         The Brutal Telling
·         Bury Your Dead
·         A Trick of the Light
·         The Beautiful Mystery

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