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It’s A Mystery: “The deity who kills for pleasure will also heal”

By (January 1, 2010) 3 Comments

The Brutal Telling

By Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, 2009

Reviewers constantly compare Louise Penny to Agatha Christie. Her detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, has been called “a 21st century version of Hercule Poirot.” My opening caveat: to see her solely in the Christie mode is unfair to Penny, Christie, and you, the reader. But more of that later.

For now, not to sell her short, let us concentrate on Agatha Christie, who remains one of my favorite mystery authors. She was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Oxford University in 1956 and became a Dame of the British Empire in 1971. Believe it or not, to date she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. John Dickson Carr, himself no mean slouch when it came to creating puzzles, asserted:

She has probably invented more ways of bamboozling the reader than any other living writer. Any young writer would find a whole course of instruction by studying her novels: watching the deft characterization while in full view she palms the ace.

Robert Graves, the distinguished poet, novelist and critic wrote:

Agatha’s best work is, like P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward’s best work, the most characteristic pleasure-writing of this epoch and will appear one day in all decent literary histories. As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb.

And P.D. James, in her just published paean to the mystery novel, Talking About Detective Fiction, chooses Christie as one of four women writers to illustrate detective stories as social history. The others are Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. Of Christie she attests:

…at her best the ingenuity is dazzling…. Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life…for millions throughout the world…. I suspect that a traveler, stranded in an airport hotel overnight and finding in the bedside cabinet two novels, the latest winner of a prestigious literary prize and an Agatha Christie would reach for the latter to assuage the half-acknowledged fear of contemporary travel and the discomfort and boredom of a long night.

My sentiments exactly.

In turning to Louise Penny, I suspect it is in no small part because her novels take place in a small village that the Christie comparison continues to surface. The word frequently used for both writers is “cozy.” In the school of the “cozy mystery,” a novel defined by its closed society, Christie was definitely Head Girl. The thing about cozies, and I do not use the term pejoratively, is that they aren’t cozy at all. Not for the formula-bound Christie with her conventional interplay of the forces of good and evil. Certainly not for Penny, with her subtle grasp of human psychology, and gift for telling detail.

The fifth in Louise Penny’s celebrated Armand Gamache series, The Brutal Telling, finds the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec returning once again to the tiny village of Three Pines. This village, just over the Canadian border, is epitomized by more than one character as Brigadoon:

It’s very peaceful. It’s like a mystical village that only appears for people who need it.

Louise Penny; photo by John Mahoney

In truth, the captivating denizens of this seemingly tranquil town, who have appeared in her four previous novels, have their comfortable lives disrupted by murder with alarming frequency. This time the body of an unknown man has turned up on the old pine floor of the village bistro and antique shop. This beloved bistro is run by Olivier and his partner, Gabri. Olivier is blonde, lithe and self contained, fastidious like a cat. He is also an antiques dealer extraordinaire. Gabri is the chief cook who runs their B&B. He’s huge and buoyant, more like a St. Bernard without the slobber. They have a warm welcome for Inspector Gamache and his team but no insight into the dead man’s identity. Or so it would seem. Unlikely prime suspects, but it is their bistro.

To Gamache and his team they are old friends, as are all the other inhabitants of Three Pines. But as his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir cautions the complacent: “Gamache is master of the hunt.” He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he has not become the most celebrated cop in Quebec with a near perfect solution rate by letting emotions interfere. Every crime, even on very familiar territory, brings a clean slate. One of the first lessons the Chief taught Beauvoir:

…was that to catch a killer they didn’t move forward. They moved back. Into the past. That was where crime began, where the killer began. Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, had lodged inside the murderer. And he’d begun to fester.

What kills can’t be seen, the Chief had warned Beauvoir. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s not a gun or a knife or a fist. It’s not anything you can see coming. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled. And waiting for a chance to strike.

Like all his colleagues, Gamache listens to people, takes notes, and gathers evidence. But he does one more thing:

He gathered feelings. He collected emotions. Because murder was deeply human. It wasn’t about what people did. No, it was about how they felt, because that’s where it all started. Some feeling that had once been human and natural had twisted….had turned sour and corrosive…. Armand Gamache found murderers by following the trail of rancid emotions.

Emotions may not be rancid, but they are running high among the tightly knit locals when the identity of the murdered man, a hermit who was living in a cabin deep in the woods, is revealed. And when the contents of the cabin are exposed, a dazzling array of treasures, they keep more secrets than they unearth. With a finesse born of experience, and a high soupcon of empathy—thanks to their ever watchful Chief—the team manages to piece together a case, albeit a highly puzzling one. Even with information, reluctantly revealed, they have wound up with a conundrum. And all we know with certainty comes from the hermit’s mouth to the killer’s ears:

“Chaos is here, old son.”

As leitmotif, it’s chilling.

To Gamache, the enigmatic is a challenge. It leads him down a labyrinthine trail, far afield from village rivalries and festering grudges, into the maze that is the international antiques trade. It takes him from Montreal to the Queen Charlotte Islands half a continent away. And it brings him back armed with knowledge that grips him both in sorrow and anger.

It bears repeating, since the comparison is made so often, that Penny doesn’t really resemble Agatha Christie. Penny’s characters are far too nuanced and complex. They are completely unconventional as opposed to the traditional figures in Christie’s books. The only formula here is the one she began when she started the series and populated Three Pines with a repertory that grows more compelling with each novel.

Gamache is not anything like Poirot. Oh, his eyes widen and then close while he sits silently pondering the solution. But Poirot is linear, totally pragmatic (which in no way diminishes him). Gamache is layered, romantic, with a mix of erudition and intuition. He most resembles P.D. James’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his special investigating team. Dalgliesh is a poet, and Gamache adores poetry, often spouting same. In the final analysis, he takes comfort from an unlikely source, Ruth Zardo, the village curmudgeon. She looks like a bag lady, drinks like a fish, swears like a longshoreman, eats gummy bears for dinner, has a pet duck named Rosa and is one of Canada’s most prestigious poets. The Governor-General award-winning poet Ruth Kemp who put voice to the unspeakable. She slips couplets into his pocket and the pockets of all and sundry in the village:

As though poetry was a weapon, which of course, it was. For her.

And pick your soul up gently by the nape of the neck
And caress you into darkness and paradise.

that the deity who kills for pleasure
will also heal .

In Louise Penny’s sure hands, the crime novel becomes the instrument for exploring social justice and universal truths about human behavior, while beautifully telling a memorable story.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.