A few months ago, I told you I would never buy a Louise Penny mystery again, for a host of reasons you can feel free to check out here. But Penny is fun to listen to in the car, so last week I went to the library and checked out Glass Houses, the thirteenth in her series featuring Armand Gamache (now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec) and all his friends and family in Three Pines, that Canadian Brigadoon on the Quebec/Vermont border. It features a typical Penny plot:
- There is a murder investigation, and it is linked to, and/or balanced with, a larger societal crisis – in this case, the assault upon Canada by drug cartels;
- Once again, there’s a “Gamache Vs. The World” plot, where our Christ-like hero is undervalued, underestimated, and blamed for every mess in the world. I will say that for once Gamadge’s choice of actions is seriously questionable, which adds a soupçon of suspense.
- Penny provides a further chapter in the popular continuing serial, Welcome to Three Pines. In this episode, it’s Myrna’s turn to provide the link to the novel’s murder plot by being the link to the novel’s suspect list; Olivier is losing his hair, while Gabri complains about being given short shrift in the plot; Ruth and her duck Rosa waddle drunkenly throughout the village; Clara the artist has either a crisis or a breakthrough in her craft; and everyone eats a lot of breakfasts at the Bistro, lunches at Sûreté headquarters, and dinners in the Gamaches’ cozy dining room.
- Most of all, there’s a theme. In Penny’s work, there are always themes. She uses the conventions of the police procedural to tackle Big Ideas, like the nature of good and evil, the importance of community, and the way life is only worthwhile if you fill it with nature, art and good food. In Glass Houses, the theme is conscience.
If the plot is typical, Penny does take a risk in terms of structure. The novel begins at the end, with the murder committed and a suspect arraigned. On page one, the trial is already underway, and Superintendent Gamache has taken the stand. His testimony will lead to a series of flashbacks detailing the case. It soon becomes clear that nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Why is the Crown being so hard on its key witness? Why does Gamache commit perjury? Who is the unnamed defendant, and is he or she actually guilty of the murder? If not, why is this person standing trial?
Penny never plays particularly fair in her mysteries – few modern authors do – but this title has a clear suspect list, and readers may find themselves going back and forth wondering who the killer may be until the end. Like most of her books, this one is also part thriller in its depiction of the attempt to bring down the drug cartels that have steadily gained the upper hand over the police; as usual, the thriller element is a bit more . . . um, thrilling than the mystery part. It’s a bit overlong and trod familiar territory that the author covered better when the series was young, but it wasn’t bad. I think longtime fans of Penny’s will enjoy this one and find the ending touching.
I have another reason for bringing up Penny again, however. At the end of the audiobook, Robert Bathurst, the actor who narrated the book, engages in an illuminating conversation with Penny, and I have to say I have a lot of respect for the challenges an author faces writing a series. For one thing, one does not want to fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over again. A series writer also has to balance the central mystery of each book with the continuing saga of the series regulars. Penny is working with nine characters that show up, in some fashion, in every book. And with few exceptions, such as the first book Still Life, none of these folks have been seriously considered as suspects. Therefore, Penny needs to add another half dozen or so characters to populate the mystery portion of each title. Most of these characters are one-shot figures, moving to the village (or residing in some hitherto unmentioned residence) and then disappearing. And then there are the characters who might figure into the thriller: the authority figures, some of them corrupt, who either assist or antagonize Gamache and his crew.
It’s a lot to juggle, and Penny doesn’t always confine this process to one novel. There was actually one title – I won’t mention which – where one of her regulars did come under suspicion and ended up being selected as the murderer and jailed. That’s where the novel ended, folks, and the next title picked up where that one left off, surprisingly exonerating the series regular and finding the real killer. (And this was the “B” story!)
In her interview, Penny admits that she envisions a serial format throughout her writing career but doesn’t necessarily have everything mapped out. Thus, a plot point introduced in one novel might be dropped and forgotten, while another is allowed to fester through several books and lead to serious changes for her character. In this fashion, Penny actually killed off a tenth regular character a few novels back. I have to hand it to her: Elizabeth George did the same thing, and it shattered that series for me, not because I worshipped the woman she killed off (although she was lovely) but because the motivation for this death was so random. Penny, one the other hand, had created a plot arc for Clara Morrow that started in book one and continued throughout the series, changing her as an artist and causing a ripple effect to her marriage. It was extremely well handled, I thought.
One of the things that bothered me about this novel – and it gets my goat whenever I visit Three Pines – was the extraordinary amount of coincidence we were asked to swallow to make this plot viable. Gamache himself comments on it halfway through the novel:
“Just seems a bit of a coincidence doesn’t it?” said Gamache. “Here we are in a tiny village few even know exists, and who arrives but the only four people on earth who can tie Anton to that death.”
Lacoste and Beauvoir nodded. Coincidences were not uncommon in murder investigations. Just as they weren’t uncommon in life. It would be foolish to read too much into it. But it would be equally foolish not to wonder.
We who read mysteries understand that there is an unavoidably formulaic quality about them. Call it a confluence of events that must occur if a mystery is to happen. This is especially true with GAD crime fiction, and rather than complain about it, true fans expect it. In fact, we revel in it. What will the closed setting be this time, we ask? Who will comprise the suspect list? Who will be killed, and what clues will lie in wait for a sleuth to discover? We expect some form of investigation, some sense of progress and perhaps some impediments – like a second or third murder – that lead to a denouement where all is revealed. (That’s why the Penny title I alluded to above felt so odd – who enjoys reading a mystery without a true solution?)
To a large extent, classic authors wrote standalone mysteries; even those featuring series characters could be read in any order without confusion. Yes, there was an arc for Peter Wimsey, where he met, courted and married Harriet Vane. The romantic subplot spanning several titles occurred for many series characters, including Nigel Strangeways, Bobby Owen, Dr. Basil Willing, Peter Duluth, and Roderick Alleyn. (In a mystery, it is considered “meeting cute” for a sleuth’s lady fair to be introduced as a suspect in a murder case.) None of this had much effect on an author’s output.
Rarely, though, did a prolific author engage in serialized storytelling. Poirot and Miss Marple slowly got older, if that was possible, but their methods remained the same. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale changed not a jot. Ellery Queen went through serious emotional turmoil during his Third Period – I have to admit it’s one of the reasons I love those books – but it all got dropped in the final cases.
What this meant was that coincidence, that hoary plot device that most authors of literature try to use sparingly or utterly avoid, was not really a problem in classic mysteries. Is it odd that every time Hercule Poirot took a vacation, he got embroiled in a murder? What’s odd to me is that any intelligent murderer would proceed with his plans when he learns that Poirot is on board. But we accept this as one of the conventions of a classic crime story. At least Poirot is a recognized authority on crime and likely to be called in, whereas Miss Marple is merely a private citizen, But you know what? I gave a lot of thought to the Marple Question. I tallyed up the dozen novels in which she appears and realized that St. Mary Mead wasn’t the magnet for capital crime we might have imagined. Over the course of thirty five years, only three murder cases cropped up (more if you count the short stories, but not that much more). It’s true that Miss Marple would have done well to not take her nephew Raymond up on his offers to pay for a vacation. This led her to spa treatments for her rheumatism in Chipping Cleghorn (A Murder Is Announced), a visit with Raymond himself and his wife (Sleeping Murder) and vacations to the Caribbean and Bertram’s Hotel, both of which ended with multiple deaths. In the other five novels, there is no coincidence: Miss Marple is actually consulted by friends to assist on local murder cases.
Does this element work as well in modern mysteries? Compare Miss Marple to the Midsomer Murders series, which has become unbearably formulaic, not only because every one of six dozen villages houses a serial killer, but because the culprits all behave in drearily identical fashion. And what about Three Pines? In her interview, Penny describes the village as a metaphor – for love, for home, for heaven on earth. It’s so small that it doesn’t appear on any map. It’s so off the beaten path that wi-fi reception is, at best, spotty. (I’m just waiting for the final book in the series to reveal that every resident is a ghost or an angel!)
I think this puts extra pressure on Penny to come up with credible reasons why so many terrible things happen in one secluded little village. I’m not just talking about the tensions that naturally occur between long-time residents that might result in murder, (although there really isn’t a lot of tension in Three Pines). I’m talking about this particular village housing a vital war weapon bomb or notorious people hiding from situations that have national, if not international significance. In Glass Houses alone, the village becomes the meeting point of choice for a cabal of drug lords and the place where a number of other folks happen to meet up who knew each other in the past, where a long ago tragedy engenders the arrival of a cobrador del frac.
What, you ask, is a cobrador del frac? You’ll find out in this novel (although the author admits that some of the history you are given is real and some is made up for plot purposes). The point is, I find it odd that so many characters here look out the door and say, “Oh-oh! There goes the cobrador del frac!” when this is not particularly common knowledge. The reader has to be brought up to speed with a load of exposition to understand why the appearance of this figure should fill anyone with dread, enough dread that the entire village goes berserk for a minute. It’s an interesting story, I’ll grant you, and of course a cobrador del frac could turn up anywhere, so it might as well turn up in Mystery Village. But the way the experience is handled feels so artificial in a novel that, being modern day, is ostensibly less artificial than a Golden Age mystery.
I’m rambling, I know! And, to be honest, I don’t think there’s a conclusion I feel the need to make here. I hope that this odd post engenders some conversation . . . about set-ups in mysteries, about the idea of a particular place being a constant hotbed of vice, about the contract an author makes with his readers to deliver certain goods. As mystery plots have changed (along with authors’ preoccupations), have expectations of delivery to the reader changed with them? Things we accepted in the 1930’s and 40’s – that Gideon Fell’s investigations would always yield an impossible crime, that Hildegarde Withers, elementary school teacher, would be a magnet for murder, that no country house during the Christmas holidays would emerge unscathed – do these things still follow in modern crime stories?
Go ahead, say it – should I just calm down?