I so want to love Louise Penny’s mysteries! She is one of the biggest names in Canadian crime fiction, which means (among other things) she has long been in my sights as a contender for my mystery class. And she has a lot of fervent admirers, including many of my friends. Also, of course, it’s always a pleasure to find books of any kind that I really enjoy, and even better to find a whole series. But after a few tries, I just don’t think it is going to work out that way for me with Penny.
I read Still Life first and thought it was just OK. Since then, I’ve started several others, picking them up almost dutifully on trips to the library, but I’ve always abandoned them after a couple of chapters. I did better with Bury Your Dead: I persisted to the end (though by half way through I wasn’t reading very carefully) because there was actually quite a lot I liked about it. For one thing, my personal taste doesn’t really run to the “village mystery” or cozy, and that’s more or less what Still Life and the other ‘Three Pines’ ones I’ve tried feel like (though formally they are hybridized with the police procedural). Bury Your Dead, however, takes us (mostly) out of Three Pines to Quebec City. There it tackles pretty ambitious historical and political themes with its focus on the beleaguered-feeling Anglophone community, Quebec separatism, and the symbolic significance of the “Father of New France,” Samuel de Champlain. Penny’s use of this broader context to motivate her specific murder mystery reminded me of Ian Rankin’s books dealing with Scottish nationalism.
I also liked Chief Inspector Gamache a lot: if I try another of Penny’s books, it will because he’s the kind of protagonist I enjoy following. Mind you, he’s also a pretty predictable type — not, in this case, like Rankin’s anti-heroic Rebus, but a close cousin to, say, P. D. James’s Adam Dalgleish. That’s OK: I like my detectives tall, dark, and brooding. Since my experience with the series is so limited, I don’t have a strong sense of Gamache’s relationships with the rest of his team, but what I saw seemed well-developed. I was also impressed with Penny’s obvious competence at plotting, and at the way she unified the three central stories of the book around the theme of mistakes — making them, dealing with their consequences, moving past them.
But! Despite these points in its favor, two features of Bury Your Dead really put me off. One was Penny’s stilted prose style, particularly its heavy reliance on portentous sentence fragments. To me, these always come across as cheap gimmicks, as a device an inexperienced writer imagines will create suspense and look stylish, but which really doesn’t and thus should always be edited, if not completely out, at least down to a bare minimum. Then, when it occurs, it would be genuinely striking. This is the sort of thing I mean:
He wished he could take that hand and hold it steady and tell him it would be all right. Because it would, he knew.
And now here he was, beneath the Literary and Historical Society, that bastion of Anglo Quebec. With a shovel.
Dead himself. Murdered.
Once or twice in a novel, in moments of extreme emotion, this kind of thing is OK. But Penny relies on this trick a lot, as if she doesn’t trust her readers to feel appropriately worked up without a signal. It got pretty tedious and detracted, I thought, from some of the novel’s most potentially moving or gripping moments. I wonder if her editors have ever resisted this habit — or maybe they like it.
I also got fed up with the manipulative way Penny strung out the novel’s backstory about a botched response to what turns out to be a terrorist plot. The aftershocks are significant and compelling, but because everyone in the novel already knows about it, keeping it from us felt really artificial — a trick, to play on our nerves, rather than a structural or thematic necessity. It’s true that I kept reading because I wanted to know what had happened, but I felt impatient rather than invested, which is not a good thing. It’s also not something I can ever remember having felt reading a Rebus novel, even though they have gotten longer and denser over the years.
Between the clunky writing and the contrived suspense, then, Penny might have forfeited her chance with me! If I’m underestimating the series, well, that’s my mistake and will be my loss. As I’ve said before, though, I have a lot of reading relationships to sustain as it is. Sara Paretsky has a new novel out, for instance, and V.I. and I actually have some catching up to do. I’ve got a lot of Ellis Peters still to read, too …