Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Finding Louise Penny

Gotta love my library: browsing the new acquisitions recently, I found a mystery by an author whom I did not know, Still Life, by Canadian writer Louise Penny. Immediately, I was drawn in by her fully developed characters and her artistry with the language. Anyone who can write this sentence impresses me: "Violent death demands Earl Grey [tea]." Nod to the long history of English cosies in which tea is immediately ordered for witnesses and family of the murder victim. Succinct, clever. Equally adept at plotting, Penny tells a story that featured the traditional closed group, in this case residents of a small, obscure town in Quebec province, peopled by smart, distinct characters. Slyly, Penny says that no one can find this idyllic town on a map, but that it lies near the Canadian/US border. As a long-time resident of New England, I was comforted by the familiarity of the climate and the geography.

I gobbled up the book, and went back for more. Yesterday I finished Bury Your Dead. Same basic cast, led by Chief Inspector Gamache, a French speaking investigator also fluent in English, enriched by the addition of residents of Quebec City. Here again, Penny handles the language skillfully, using just enough French to keep us cognizant of the characters' backgrounds and loyalties. The latter is important in this story because the main plot rests on the history of political struggle between French and English citizens of Quebec. Actually, main plot is a misnomer. This story has three plots and like the driver of a troika, the author never loses control as powerful steeds pull us along to the end where all three story lines finish in a flourish. The solitary murder is solved, a cold case is reopened and justice restored, and the wrenching story of a terrorist attack is told in flashbacks and in a penultimate scene that challenges the best action that any film could produce.

Beginning with the first of Penny's mysteries might be a good thing. I think I have inadvertently read a spoiler for whatever title lies between Still Life and Bury Your Dead, but the thing is, I'd reread these books anyway. That's not something I usually do. Once the puzzle is solved most murder mysteries hold little interest. But I'll reread Penny's books because they transcend their genre. May she live long and write much.

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