In the town of Three Pines, in the province of Quebec, a group of friends, most of them artists, are having a get-together. One of them, Jane Neal, has, after a long life of painting, finally agreed to submit a work for a local art show, and it has, somewhat controversially, been accepted. The next day though, Jane is found dead in the snow, shot through the heart by a hunting arrow.
Is this an accident? (No, obviously). Enter Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, homicide detective with the Sûreté du Quebec. He clearly suspects foul play but can he prove that it wasn’t an accident? And can he find the killer?
Louise Penny is a multi-award winning writer for this series of eight books, four of which (I think) are set in the same town. I’ve seen a number of good reviews on the web for her work, so I decided it was time to pick up one of her books. So, given the prize-winning talent on display here – why did I have real trouble getting to the end of this mystery?
Well, let’s see what we’ve got here. On the surface, this ticks a number of boxes for the classic mystery.
A detective who stands apart from the crowd?
Yes. Gamache is an introspective sort, interested in art and poetry.
A finite set of suspects?
Yes. Jane was shot by an arrow, so one of the townsfolk who know how to shoot an arrow. Not sure why, when the hunting accident theory is being favoured, no-one suspects an out of town hunter, but that’s an acceptable choice, plot-wise. Maybe the nearest town is miles away.
An odd choice of murder weapon?
Bow and arrow is pretty odd. Although the only use of its oddness is to limit the number of suspects.
A last chapter reveal?
Well, penultimate chapter. Gamache does work out who the killer is – as does someone else – but the killer does oblige by going a bit nuts at the end and trying to kill some people. It does save on finding evidence, which might have been difficult.
One or two, I suppose, but they were a bit vague. By the end of the book, I think, it’s pretty clear, if you’ve been paying attention, who the killer is, but there is a nice misdirect towards the end.
So, all of that would seem to indicate that I should have really enjoyed this book, so why did I find it all a bit of a chore? After all, this is one of the books that I mentioned in this post.
First, let me say, I do understand why people love these books, but to me, it seemed to be overwritten. The plot didn’t seem to be enough to fill the pages – a large portion is spent before murder is proved (as opposed to accident) despite the forensics pointing out early on that the arrow shot could not have been an accident. Gamache even gets temporarily suspended over his insistence that it was murder. Similarly, the crucial evidence in the victim’s house is not seen until the last quarter of the book… for no particularly good reason. I’m pretty sure that in the case of any suspicious death, you can’t prevent the police from entering the victim’s home… unless of course you need to pad the plot out a bit. I wasn’t quite sure about the plot involving the novice detective involved in the operation – I can’t see, given how it pans out, how she even got a job in the first place.
If you’re the sort of person who likes books written in a poetic (for want of a better word) style – I gather Donna Leon writes in a similarly vein – then you might like this. But for me, even looking past the writing style, this wasn’t my cup of tea. I wouldn’t be averse to giving another book in the series a go – after all, this was Louise Penny’s first book, but I don’t think it will be for a while.
I can only go by the short preview sections available on Amazon, but from what I’ve seen I’d agree with your assessment of the style. It’s a very small sample, I know, but the snippets from the later books seem a lot better; in the first one I noticed several instances where she’d picked a word which didn’t seem to be quite the one she wanted.
What I do think might be a consistent problem is the editing. Her natural rhythm seems to be to write longish sentences with plenty of dependent clauses, but whoever has done the editing has clearly subscribed to the “Mystery/Thriller means short sentences for maximum reading ease” school of thought and has replaced a load of commas and semicolons with full-stops. Apart from creating a lot of weird sentence fragments, this imposes a whole new rhythm on the writing. Which, for me at least, meant that the punctuation was forcing me to read it in a way I don’t think the author intended.
Of course that’s a complete guess (and I should be grateful that there WAS an editor), but I got the same impression from each of the half-dozen or so samples I read. I know all this nit-picky sentence-level stuff isn’t very exciting, but I think it can make a huge difference to overall reader enjoyment.
Interesting to hear that the style in later books seems to be more… direct, I guess. It’s one of the drawbacks of my almost-insistence in reading books in series order – if the style of the first book is atypical of the series and I don’t like it, I’ll miss out on the later ones. Indeed, if the first Paul Doherty I read had been Satan In St Mary’s, the first in the series, I might not have persevered with an outstanding series.
Maybe I’ll give Penny another try sooner rather than later…
Penny was a journalist for most of her life. I doubt she was picking the wrong word anywhere. But it is, after all, a debut work and I will admit that the book has a sort of “touchy-feely/New Age” approach to it. I think Penny’s approach to the crime novel is definitely in the spirit of the traditional whodunit and she very much honors it in all of her work. By the time she reaches THE MURDER STONE (aka A RULE AGAINST MURDER) she has mastered planting clues in the fair play traditions. I managed to figure out the murder method in that book.
I was very impressed with STILL LIFE primarily because of the way she reveals the life of the victim. I think Penny is very interested in people first and foremost — especially people who are unfairly treated, those who are ostracized, the misunderstood curmudgeons, the “unlikeable” ones. The mystery is just the way she gets to explore all these people. She certainly understands a lot about hidden lives as opposed to the life people publicly present. For me that is the most fascinating part of her books. STILL LIFE talks about all this in a way that is rarely discussed in ANY fiction and spoke to me on a very deep and personal level. I was so moved by this book I wrote her fan letter, the first one I have ever written since I was a teenager. I immediately read the other two books that were out at the time I discovered STILL LIFE. Since then I have read all her books and have always found something in each one at which to marvel.
Well penned John. I agree wholeheartedly. I am fully a Louise Penny fan! Keep them coming Louise please! I LOVE visiting Three Pines and Gamache!
I will disagree with your conclusions. I enjoyed the book as I have enjoyed the subsequent books in the series. I like that the series portrays the lives of a group of people who deal with murders. The books are about people and a setting in which mysteries take place and are solved.
I was fairly sure that my thoughts would generate some debate. I think you’ve all definitely convinced me to try another of her books – any recommendations as to a later one that doesn’t spoil an earlier one?
Read them all in order!
Penny’s plotting is a weakness, as is her flowery writing style — as you say, overwritten. I think of her books as watered down Fred Vargas (as is her Gamanche to Vargas’ Adamsberg)..
Fred Vargas – another name to add to the list… Glad I’m not alone in my opinion here – I think the central mystery was fine but the plot points such as delaying the entry to the house seemed very artificial.
I’d love to read your review of a Fred Vargas novel. You might like to try Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand to begin with. I’ve never read anything like her!
Not available yet on Kindle – is An Uncertain Place any good?
Louise Penny continues to win awards, and I’ve continued to read her books, hoping for something better. She seems caught in the dilemma of cozy/mystery authors who flesh out their characters enough to make you like them, then chosing one of them to be the killer at the end, stretching out the plot to windy lengths to make it so. The best elements in her book for this reader are the depiction of small town Canadian life and the seasonal touches she offers.
She’s never written a bad book, but she’s yet to write a book that made me rave about it on my blog. But there’s always tomorrow.
How about Bury Your Dead?
I haven’t read Uncertain Place yet but it sounds excellent.
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