Sunday, January 30, 2011

Louise Penny: The Canadian Agatha Christie

I met Louise Penny in Joe and Bonnie’s Black Orchid Mystery Bookshop (sadly no longer with us) in Yorkville in 2006, just after the U.S. release of her debut novel, Still Life. As it happened, I’d already read it on Joe’s and Bonnie’s recommendation (They were never wrong). I was not a fan of ‘cozy’, ‘traditional’ or ‘Village’ mysteries — all terms used to categorize crime novels that lack serial killers, graphic sex and bloody denouements. The only Agatha Christie I’d ever read was And Then There Were None when I was in High School and even then appreciated the inventive plot. Having this year published Bury Your Dead, the sixth entry in her series describing the cases of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, the elite Homicide Squad of the Canadian Province of Quebec-- with this novel, Louise Penny cements her claim, in the repeated opinion of reviewers, to be the modern Agatha Christie. Actually, she’s better.

Her first three novels — Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month — are set in Three Pines, a village in rural Quebec just south of Montreal near the Vermont border (not coincidentally, Ms. Penny’s real home is in that same geographical location). Three Pines is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and their secrets, or at least think they do; an Easter egg hunt on the Common is big doings, and the social life revolves around Olivier’s Bistro, a B & B operated by two gay men: Olivier, the business man, and Gabri, the giant chef. In Still Life, the retired schoolteacher is killed by an arrow; in A Fatal Grace, a predatory businesswoman scouting properties, is electrocuted on the shore of a frozen lake as she watches the annual Christmas Curling Tournament; in The Cruelest Month, as the villagers are celebrating Easter with a séance in a haunted mansion, the site of two old murders, the psychic drops dead, apparently from fright. Ms. Penny is a terrifically inventive storyteller: her plots layered, the red herrings ingeniously placed to distract from the fair-play clues and surprising twists. The early novels were published first in Canada, then in the U.S. Still Life won the New Blood Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association in 2004, and the Anthony, Barry and Dilys Awards here in 2006. A Fatal Grace won the Agatha Award for Best Novel in 2007.

The thing that compels reviewers to call Ms. Penny a modern Christie is her literary style and the number and depth of her characters. She is a careful writer, the craft evident in her atmospheric scene-setting, the richness of her language, and the leisureliness of her storytelling. There is nothing flashy with her, no pounding thrills; she simply hooks you into the world and lives of her characters from Scene One.

Her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a big man, a comfortable presence, cultured, sensitive, an intuitive detective. Reviewers compare him to Hercule Poirot, Columbo, Maigret. I don’t think so. He is, instead, kin to Superintendant Martin Beck of the Stockholm police — the detective in the series of ten novels written by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the 1960’s and 70’s — but, in Penny’s case, without the Swedish dour. And cut from the same cloth as Inspector Piet Van der Valk, of Nicholas Freeling’s novels set in Amsterdam in the 1960’s and 70’s. Van der Valk is from the blue-collar classes, a maverick to his police superiors to the detriment of his career, but respected by his team. Like Gamache, less polished but with a French wife, Arlette, and a lover of good food. There is no end of delicious descriptions by Penny of the fare consumed by Chief Inspector Gamage and his team at Olivier’s Bistro.

Louise Penny has peopled her Three Pines mysteries with a large, fleshed-out cast of characters. We’re privy to the intimate family life of Chief Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and the personalities of the cops in his Squad: their private lives and weaknesses. There is his fiercely loyal second-in-command Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, a tireless investigator but short on empathy for co-workers or witnesses. Agent Isabelle Lacoste, reliable, committed, emotionally-solid. Agent Yvette Nichol — the Chief’s special project — smart, disturbed, unreliable. The denizens of Three Pines are even more quirky and numerous: the Bistro couple, Olivier and Gabri, very different personalities (one a potential murderer). Clara and Peter Morrow, both painters, the husband successful but zealous of his as yet unknown, intuitive-genius wife. Myrna, the bookstore owner, a psychologist who fled the City, the only black in the village. Ruth Zardo, a foul-mouthed, septuagenarian poet of genius whose companion on walks around the village is a duck named Rosa. And any number of resident-suspects.

Bury Your Dead, the new Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, is what some would irritatingly call the author’s “breakout book”. Except, Louise Penny is already broke out, her excellent novels long-past discovered. Bury the Dead is outstanding, her best ever. Gamarche is in Quebec City, recuperating from wounds and grief, the cause of which is revealed piecemeal and brilliantly in the course of the novel. He is staying with his former boss and mentor in his house within the ancient walled city during Winter Carnival Week. To divert his troubled mind, Gamache is researching a mystery that surrounds the 1759 Battle of Quebec that gave the English the City. He reads daily in the ancient manuscripts preserved at the Literary and Historical Society, a little-known bastion of the English in French Quebec. And then a body is found in the basement of the Society, recently murdered, and the Chief Inspector is persuaded to lend a hand, which becomes a search for the lost burial place of Samuel de Champlain, the City’s founder, and for the reason that the foremost searcher for Champlain’s body, a Frenchman, ended up buried in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of the hated English.

Bury Your Dead is the most elaborate and well-constructed mystery I’ve read since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Penny interweaves three separate storylines — the murder in the basement; the recurrent nightmares of the ambush by terrorists that nearly killed himself and Beauvoir; the reopening of the Three Pines murder investigation (detailed in A Brutal Telling) that put his friend, Olivier, in prison. All is told in startling and original detail, as in this symbolic description of Gamache walking his German Shepherd Henri on the snow-piled streets of Quebec City on an austerely beautiful, numbingly cold evening:

“Picking up a handful of snow, the Chief Inspector mashed it into a ball in his fist. Henri immediately stood, his tail going so hard his entire rear swayed. His eyes burning into the ball. Gamache tossed it into the air and the dog leapt, his mouth closing over the snowball, and chomping down. Landing on all fours, Henri was once again surprised that the thing that had been so solid had suddenly disappeared. Gone, so quickly . . . But next time would be different.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this, Robert. I have always heard of Louise Perry as "the Agatha Christie of Canada," and that made me think I would not enjoy her work. You've changed my mind.