I checked out both of these free books from the local library. I was so excited, after placing a hold on them a week prior, to get them in time for being home on my couch all weekend recovering from a thoracic epidural. (Which I was – “you’ll be a little sore” my ass.)
Louise Penny is a beautiful writer. She writes a series of mystery novels starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Her stories aren’t meant to be thrillers or riddled with suspense, and they don’t read as if they are. In fact her first book, Still Life, moved deliberately slowly and beautifully. The end was a little overdone compared to the pace of the rest of the book, but I was already taken with her nonetheless. I decided to try out the 2nd book and decide whether I would move forward with the series. A Fatal Grace was similar, but introduced a story arc involving the main character and themes of betrayal and that thin line between right and wrong (or if such a thing like right and wrong can exist in a world of grey) that was intriguing enough to check out the next 2 books simultaneously.
Most of Penny’s books take place in a small town near Quebec called Three Pines, and while a Rule Against Murder takes place nearby, it still includes Three Pines elements and characters. In The Cruelest Months, Penny writes, “Three Pines was never forgotten. But it was only ever found by people lost.” I feel this way about finding her books – sick and tired, reading Penny’s books feels like coming up for fresh air. Finding a decent murder mystery is not an easy task. For every Louise Penny, there are 5…well, I’m sure we’ll get to those eventually.
One of the things I enjoy most (and which interestingly appears to be controversial amongst her reader’s reviews) is that Louise Penny doesn’t necessarily choose a narrator. While the central figure is definitely the Chief Inspector, you get a look at each character’s history, thought process, emotional responses – and the true brilliance is that Penny accomplishes that without making the story feel convoluted, over-done or confusing at any turn. She writes as if it were effortless to devote just the right amount of time to each character appearing in her books.
In The Cruelest Month, Penny uses the Chief Inspector to explain the tactic employed to hunt murderers in each of her books: “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. Become grotesque. Had turned sour and corrosive until its very container had been eaten away. Until the human barely existed.” This theme isn’t one that Penny needs to so blatantly spell out for the reader the way that she does in the quote above, as it is evident in the way her stories unfold. But I appreciate this main theme because for me it feels as though Penny is coming down on the side of nurture in the nature/nurture debate of murder. Rather than attempt to achieve the spectacular or outlandish in her mysteries, Penny takes a journey into the motives that could push anyone, in the right social circumstances, to a commit such a human act as murder. (Likewise, a biologist could argue that Penny’s fixation on emotions actually brings her down on the nature side – still, I like to think if it came down to a heated debate, Penny and I would be on the same side here.)
Although formulaic in the hunting tactic and writing style, Penny provides new running social themes in each book. These themes are what consume much of her longer narratives and conversations throughout each separate story.
In the Cruelest Month, a central topic was not only how our core beliefs (religious and likewise) impact our relationships with one another, but also how our relationships with one another shake our core beliefs. And perhaps the greatest pleasure of that particular mystery was watching these characters’ convictions unfold and develop throughout the tale. While knowing the human nature beneath the developing belief systems was what made them beautiful and intriguing, you simultaneously know that it is that very human nature in one such system that sparked the end of someone’s life.
In A Rule Against Murder, Penny explores family dynamics and the secrets that we keep from one another. Most importantly, she explores the ways in which our secrets actually make us more human – so often they are the very essence of our motivations and choices. And yet because we keep them as secrets, those deeply human portions of ourselves can also change our exterior, the part we allow others to see, into someone we don’t recognize – someone who may even be at deep odds with our true emotional selves. The secrets we keep both enrich and destroy us.
A hidden secret that warped one character’s exterior into something completely oppositional to her emotional life involved severe neuralgia, and I couldn’t help but feel pangs of familiarity – how often is my anger or happiness masking pain? How often is yours, even if it isn’t neuralgia?
Penny’s books only really hold one major flaw for me, and unfortunately, it is the last thing that I take away from the book – how the ending is presented. Her endings are often so out of proportion with the slow pace and thematic elements of her books, taking outrageous steps to reach the end. In the Cruelest Months, the killer gives a long monologue describing in great detail transgressions and motive for murder to a room full of towns people, including the Chief Inspector. This not only seems unrealistic for books so focused on genuine human character, but it also gives the reader no credit; every explanation to the last t is crossed, despite the fact that so many of those connections could have been inferred by the reader after developing hundreds of pages of deep relationships with the characters. If Penny worried that the reader may infer incorrectly, she might have tried to draw the brief line from point A to point B, rather than provide a description of both points and every inch of the line in between.
Similarly, at the end of A Rule Against Murder Penny spends an entire chapter referencing actions of “the murderer” after the Chief Inspector has figured it out, not yet wanting the reader to have confirmation – to the point where I thought aha! Once the name is provided the rest will fill in. But no, despite keeping the name dangling back for a full chapter, Penny still spends the entirety of the chapter following with a long narrative from said murderer, making sure there are no connections drawn by the reader yet again. I believe that readers of murder mysteries want to feel like we have come upon our “aha!” moment, and Penny strips the reader of that with her detailed who-dunnit descriptions. And what’s more, with a writer like Penny who has such depth, I would imagine (though could never know for sure) that her readers even more so have the desire and ability to draw connections than those looking for a suspenseful edge of their seat mystery with no ends left untied.
My other annoyance in this particular case came from reading the books back-to-back: the story arc mentioned above that began with greater detail in Penny’s second Armand Gamache book comes to a semi-climax in the end of The Cruelest Month. And, while yet unresolved, it is virtually unmentioned in A Rule Against Murder. Being an intriguing insight into the life and motivations of the Chief Inspector, as well as a story line holding one of the most interesting underlying themes of her books, I can only hope that Penny revives her story arc in the next installment.
Despite the overdone endings, Penny has a way of writing that draws you in to both the story and the world she creates. It is for writing like that, transformative, true, beautiful, and filled with social, human themes, that despite her endings I will delight in the day that the library has Louise Penny’s next book available.