Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Canadian Statue Mystery

It seems that, in recent weeks, a bit of an international flavour has been thrown into the mystery blogs. I’ve reviewed Paul Halter, John has gotten a crack at the Boileau-Narcejac writing team, and TomCat has introduced us to Dutch authors like Libbe van der Wal. (An internet meme like the Alphabet of Crime Fiction could totally be inspired by this.) Then, I was asked the intriguing question of whether I knew of Canadian GAD-school authors. I couldn’t think of any, but John came to the rescue and offered a suggestion: Louise Penny.

It is very difficult to capture the Canadian spirit— although we’re similar to Americans, Canadians are very different in many ways. It’s a pleasant surprise when an author succeeds in writing Canadiana. In a mystery, it’s doubly pleasant: Canadians are sorely underrepresented in mysteries of the GAD school. Too often, the Canadian cousin is just a neighbour of the aforementioned cousin (probably deceased), trying to get a piece of the family fortune. Basically, Canada is too often used as an easy excuse for why Bob has been away or where outlaw Mickey Finn has been hiding out. (Canada is not alone in this club— Australia comes to mind as a country that plays a similar role a little too often.)

An alternate title: A Rule Against Murder
It was a pleasure to read Louise Penny’s The Murder Stone, an impossible crime novel taking place in Canada, involving Canadians. It stars Inspector Armand Gamache as the detective— Gamache being the chief inspector of the Homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec. (It’s not the first time I’ve encountered a Canadian detective on this blog— Rufus King’s Lieutenant Valcour is a half-hearted attempt at creating one, but he’s as Canadian as Hercule Poirot is Belgian.) Gamache is a brilliant creation. He and his wife, Reine-Marie, are truly in love— and it’s nice to have a detective who doesn’t have serious problems with his marriage or sex life. Gamache is a competent, intelligent man, who loves history, poetry, his wife, his children… and when murder interrupts his vacation, Gamache is the natural choice for investigator.

It’s summertime, and Inspector Gamache (with his wife Reine-Marie) are spending a vacation at the isolated Manoir Bellechasse in the beautiful province of Québec. All the other rooms of the Manoir are occupied by the Finney family, a group of Anglos who have come to commemorate the memory of the late patriarch, Mr. Morrow. His children found their father distant, unloving, and unwilling to give them anything but advice. Naturally, the family reunion is rather strained, and before long a violent storm hits. Once the storm subsides, a dead body is discovered, murdered in impossible circumstances!

Yes, “impossible circumstances”… You know what that means! It’s an impossible crime! The execution is really neat. It’s an interesting variation on an impossible situation posed in Catherine Aird’s His Burial Too, where a statue crushes a person to death. But how was this accomplished? The statue was heavy, and the pedestal it sat on showed not the slightest trace of scratches, scuffing, or the like. So how was it done? The solution is extremely clever, and the killer’s identity was well-hidden. Also, the clueing is extremely fair and rather deft— it was only once I found out who the killer was that I was able to deduce motive, and from there on, I suddenly grasped how it was done.

I mentioned a similarity to the book His Burial Too, but there is one significant difference between it and The Murder Stone: Louise Penny’s book does not sag. Catherine Aird had a wickedly ingenious means of committing the crime, but the investigation got so routine and dull. Louise Penny easily keeps up your interest, with a complex plot (which doesn’t feel like it’s circling around unnecessarily) and interesting characters.

Louise Penny
I’m not one for spewing out review clichés, but if you like Agatha Christie, you’ll probably like Louise Penny. This is a modern-day country house murder: an isolated location, a closed circle of people, an embittered family reunion, when emotional temperatures finally reach a boiling point and it all explodes into murder. Like with Christie’s The Hollow, the characters elevate the book to a new level. (That being said, the plot of The Murder Stone is far better than that of The Hollow, so I’d say it’s even better.) The characters spend time thinking about their childhoods, their various quarrels, petty jealousies, etc. without crossing the line into annoying character angst. True, there were a few moments where I thought characterization was dragged out too much, but it’s written skilfully, with hardly a dull moment. The pages seem to whiz by. Add to that scrupulously fair clueing and you get a very well-written mystery novel.

There’s also an excellent sense of humour throughout the novel, such as when nobody can figure out the sex of a child, Bean, but will not ask. (This humorous situation becomes darker later on in the novel, when you find out that the child’s mother has been purposely withholding this information from her family and especially her mother, using it as a sort of biological weapon.) Then there’s an inspector, Beauvoir, who simply cannot cope without the internet, Google, and cell phones, grumbling about having to jot notes down with pens and paper. He’s also a particular target for blackflies (I sympathise).

Overall, I highly recommend giving Louise Penny and The Murder Stone a glance. It’s very well-written, with a good impossible crime that is well-resolved. The clueing is fair, and Mrs. Penny perfectly captures the Canadian spirit in her writing (without it being overwhelming or incomprehensible to non-Canadians), be it through the kindly Inspector Gamache or descriptions of the awe-inspiring Canadian wilderness.

Oh, and there’s one more impossible crime novel by Louise Penny: Dead Cold. Will I read it? Oh, yes. (And, here’s a fun fact I just discovered a few days ago: a book by Louise Penny is the community read this year from the library, and the author herself will be coming to the city in September!)


  1. I really like this international flavor we've given this part of the blogosphere, and I will be reviewing Books' latest novel and another locked room mystery by Martin Méroy. It's a welcome diversion from the book critiques of the usual suspects and I still hope that it will do its part in putting these books on the radar of publishers.

    Anyway, it seems that we've found a female companion for Gosho Aoyama and Bill Pronzini in our mausoleums of crime, and you're really lucky that you didn't titled this place Cold Cases (or something similar) – too many moderns here to resemble a cold-case file-cabinet. ;) I'm definitely going to give this author a shot.

    Oh, I found a genuine GAD author from Canada: Pearl Foley, who wrote about Richard North whose even more annoying and exasperating than Philo Vance – if you can fathom such a thing. She's mentioned on the JDCarr forum (it's four or so messages before the end of the page).

  2. Like I said, an Internet meme could definitely be started by it, with contirbutors pointing out the various countries/nationalities of authors and so on.

    And I don't think you'd regret giving Penny a shot. Despite a few moments where I thought the characterization was dragged out, it was only once in a while and generally very interesting character conflicts.

    And after all, it's a 400 page novel devoured in two days. It gives you a bit of a clue how entertaining the read was.

  3. DEAD COLD must be an alternate title for A FATAL GRACE (or is it the other way around?). It's also about the Canadian obsession with the winter sport of curling. A good one, but later books (without the impossible crime aspects) are even better. But I still think her first book, STILL LIFE, is truly amazing.

    I'm on a French kick now. Hubert Monteilhet is next and then some Fantomas novels. I think I'm going to designate one day a week to a crime writer who writes in a language other than English for the rest of this year.

  4. "Bury Your Dead" is the community read I mentioned, but there's such a huge list of holds, there's no way I'd get a copy before I leave for Spain for most of August. It's great to hear Penny just gets better instead of letting praise get to her head- I'll be sure to give her other, non-impossibles a look as well... but my love of impossible crimes won't allow me to do so until I read the impossibles first.

    Interesting thing about Fantomas. You've reminded me of one of my Polish mystery novels, one that highly influenced my love of impossible crimes. I might do a review of that one some day soon.

  5. You absolutely should not read BURY YOUR DEAD until you first read THE BRUTAL TELLING. The book is a direct sequel and has a huge spoiler if you haven't read THE BRUTAL TELLING first. Don't even read any of the reviews or blurbs for BURY YOUR DEAD! This is the only book that requires you read two books in order of publicaiton in Penny's series. Laurie King did something similar with two of her books. I read the sequel first and it completely ruined the previous book for me.

  6. John, interesting> I read Bury Your Dead and didn't like it. I had not read anything else by Penny and my friends were shocked by my lack of enthusiasm.

  7. I was looking for this at Amazon.com and I couldn't find it. I didn't realize until later that "The Murder Stone" is published in my country as "A Rule Against Murder."