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January 3, 2012

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

Coming to detective fiction via Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie is a bit like being the kind of person who only goes to church on Christmas Eve. And sure, I’ve tried to make up for it since– I’ve since gotten into PD James and Dorothy Sayers, but I’ll never feel like I’ve got quite enough cred. I’m not a real detective fiction fan anyway– I seem to like the stories in spite of the detection, and though I know this is an unpopular point of view, I’ll tell you that if Atkinson forgot to put Jackson Brodie in her next novel, I’m not sure I’d notice. What I like about murder mysteries is that they bring to the forefront what I like best about novels in general: atmosphere, surprising relationships, back story and plot.

And yes, I like my novels English, and the mysteries in particular. For me, Midsomer Murders is less about the murders than whatever is happening on the village green (which, as it happens, is usually murder, so it all comes out in the wash). And somehow in A Trick of the Light, the seventh book in her Armand Gamache series, Louise Penny has managed to thoroughly infuse a village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships with the English essence I so love in my fiction.

The village is Three Pines, so isolated it does not appear on any maps, but also a hotbed for murder. In this latest installment, a body has been discovered in the garden of Clara Morrow, an artist who has just launched her first solo show at the Musee in Montreal. The dead woman turns out to be a ghost from Clara’s past whose connections to the people in her present are numerous and surprising. Chief Inspector Gamache must untangle the web of intrigue, all the while dealing with his own trauma from a recent incident in which he was seriously wounded and officers working under him were killed.

For two days last week, I was more devoted to this book that anything else in the universe. It was the perfect book to curl up in against the winter darkness, I found Gamache and his second-in-command so compelling as characters, the vicious and incestuous art world served as a sparkling backdrop, and Three Pines was a perfect idyll, even with all the murder going on. Though yes, this books really wants for an edit. Penny writes in short stilted non-sentences that make for breezy reading but don’t completely make sense when you look at them closely. And there were too many slips– how did Clara notice the expression on her husband’s face when he was walking a few paces ahead of her, and the misused “begging the question” twice in five pages was a bit agonizing. The essential bit of Englishness that we’re really missing here is the genre writer with serious command of the language.

But I’m happy to forgive the book for all its flaws, because it made my holiday, and I look forward to acquainting myself with more Gamache in the future.

4 thoughts on “A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny”

  1. Linn says:

    I too have been a fan of Louise Penny’s mysteries for awhile…I try to read them accordingly during the appropriate time of the year as their seasonally and holiday themed…she got quite a chuckle out of that when we spoke at an Eden Mills Festival couple years ago-she thought there was defintely a book club schedule there ! I also LOVE Kate Atkinson-all her work- because she’s a Yorkshire lass…like my mum- and the Brodie series is great! Did you catch Case Histories on Masterpiece while back? It was so good! The very lovely Jason Isaacs made a great Brodie.

    As you are lover of English mysteries and ones with perhaps a literary,feminist and academic bent…I suggest Joan Smith for her Loretta Lawson mysteries. And of course, the Amanda Cross mysteries written by the late feminist literary theorist Carolyn Heilbrun are “to die for”!!! I have all of them and gobble them up again and again every so often..Death in a Tenured Position…how much better can a title grab you!

  2. Kristin says:

    I started to get into mysteries the same way you did. My mother (a librarian) would ONLY read mysteries when I was growing up, and that kind of turned me against them. I didn’t start to read them until a few years ago and now I’m a little bit hooked. But I’m like you–I could care less about the mystery. I like the character development over a series of books, the atmosphere, etc.

    Have you ever read Denise Mina? Her books take place in Scotland, not England, but they are fantastic. The Garnet Hill trilogy is one of my favorite series of books of all time, mystery or not. They remind me a little of Kate Atkinson and Tana French–dark, but funny and well written.

  3. patricia says:

    Ooooo!! I’m enjoying reading these mystery recommendations; thank you Linn & Kristin. My mother is a librarian as well, and there were plenty of mysteries in our house which I gobbled up – Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey (highly recommended!).

    I love Kate Atkinson, too, and have grown very fond of Louise Penny. At first I thought Penny’s books were just cosy mysteries, but I think now that there is much more to her writing – she really gets under one’s skin. I am very much drawn to the compassion in her books. For those who have not discovered her, I also cannot recommend enough the book of Fred Vargas (she’s a lady). Superb.

    And it’s true – well-written mysteries are all about the people and the rich details of their lives. The murder part is what brings all these fascinating lives together.

  4. Kelly says:

    I’ve just finished Penny’s Bury Your Dead, and it’s my favourite of hers so far. Adding to some of the other recommendations: I have also recently enjoyed the Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths–Galloway is a Norfolk archaeologist. Sarah Caudwell’s mystery novels are in a way a genre unto themselves, and hardly anyone seems to have heard about them, but I always like to recommend them (although now that I think of it, I’m not sure anyone has ever thanked me for the recommendation, so perhaps I am the only person who has giggled my way through?)

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