Tag Archives: Mysteries

Louise Penny: Masculinity FTW

I did a lot of reading this summer. The bulk of that reading was Louise Penny novels, and so rather than write one post after the other about Inspector Gamache and descriptions of Quebecois cheese, I’m writing this one post, and it’s fine, because the novels are all the same: a pleasant romp through a picturesque Quebec countryside with characters that make you hope for a better world, even while murder abounds and threats of Darkness loom. I also read a lot of recipe books – many featuring the Instant Pot – of which I will not bore you.

I read The Murder StoneA Great Reckoning and Glass Houses. My mum rightly pointed out that I’ve done myself a disservice in reading out of order, but let’s be clear that I’m not likely to ever go back and read the others, so finding out that one of the detectives has a drug problem after he’s been to NA and gotten married to Gamache’s daughter hardly ruins the thread for future reading.

So right. If you’ve not encountered Louise Penny here’s the thrust: her novels win heaps of awards. People love them. There are organized bus tours to the town where Penny lives so that people can visit the cafe featured in the novel. They’re incredibly enjoyable while you’re reading them, something entirely comforting like so many wool sweaters and mugs of tea. Inspector Gamache has cult followings who want to know where he ‘actually’ lives (my beliefs about Gilbert Blythe notwithstanding, fictional characters only live in the mind).

So what’s the deal? My guess is that people (and me while I’m reading them) like the security of a man who is kind and who exemplifies the tropes of a gentlemen-masculinity that are all laughable in reality. We want to believe that men can be kind, brave and stand up for principles and values amid a world of corruption, greed, lust and those other sins. Despite All the Evidence to the contrary, and more importantly, despite the reality that no one ever needed men to be the bastions of honour in the first place, Gamache is an irresistible character because of these qualities. We swoon at the idea of a kind and noble man who occupies a place of power because there are so few examples in reality.

I’m not advancing a novel argument here. I’m sure anyone reading the books would come to the same conclusion. That it’s as much the attraction to Gamache and his pastoral perfect life as it is the mystery around the murder that keeps us reading. We want to be close to a life of comfortable chairs, exquisite food (though the descriptions of food are something distracting – like I have to get up and make bread and cheese before I can keep reading) and totalizing romance because such a place and such people are all but impossible to find in the world we occupy. Utter wish fulfillment.

So it’s something of a rude awakening to come back to 2019 and recall the moment we are in. The responsibilities of being flawed after spending so many hours with the flawless is taxing. It almost makes me want to read non-fiction. Almost.


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Cottage Week: 4/5


I spent the last week at a cottage in Northern Ontario doing four things: sleeping, eating, swimming and reading. I suppose I should say five, as I also drank my share of wine. I relaxed. I luxuriated. I was eaten by horse flies. I felt – and was – totally privileged. I made my way through five summer reads, and four were pretty well fantastic. One was… not.

In order:

Raymond Chandler’s, The Big Sleep

It’s five books ago now, and so my memory of the novel is already fading (see why this blog had to come into being?), but I do remember enjoying The Big Sleep because I liked the detective – Marlowe – principally because of his self-reflexive uncertainty about his decisions and actions. I can’t say I was particularly fond of the representation of women in the novel, but (if my reading in the mystery category so far is to be any indication) perhaps women in mystery novels are destined to be somewhat flighty and ridiculous (or in the case of Miss Marple, utterly without sexual discrimination so as to be mistaken for a man). The mystery Marolwe must solve is particularly engrossing because it doesn’t begin as the mystery we think he’s meant to solve, and so the crime unfolds gradually, along with the clues, in an intricate and engrossing weave. Yeah, I wrote that sentence.

Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

One of the opening sequences in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate involves Calpurnia (our twelve-something protagonist) writing a letter to the editor of the Texas paper to complain that the weather report in the paper (this being 1899, weather reports arrive by newspaper) gives the temperature in the sun, and not, as she might like, in the shade. She tells the editor that the temperature in the shade would be more accurate to most of the citizen’s experience of the outdoors, and that the lower number might boost town moral. The newspaper, alert to a good suggestion, changes their reporting to give both the temperature in the sun and in the shade.

I describe this sequence in detail because I think it aptly captures the tremendous strength of Kelly’s novel in using plot events to unfold and develop character, setting and theme. Calpurnia’s character steadily “evolves” (as we might hope from the title) but not in any melodramatic Bella sense of her pensive stares or deliberate conversations about her own changes, but rather through subtle interactions and actions. The time and place of the novel is, too, richly described and felt, though not through any cumbersome description, but through the interaction between place and character.

Not to mention the book does a masterful job of concluding without “settling” everything, while still allowing the reader a sense of content and closure.

Oh! And Calpurnia is just a fantastic character.

Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared

It feels like something of a disservice to Echlin’s novel to lump it in here among five other books, because the novel is exceptional in every way. It’s epigraph reads “tell others,” and the whole novel urges readers to take seriously (for N.) their collective responsibility to read/hear the stories of others and to act whenever and wherever injustice is done. Far from heavy handed in this moral, the novel beautifully (really, really, I try not to overuse this word so that in the rare instances – like right now – that it applies it might have weight…) exposes the changes wrought by love and the sacrifices one might be willing to make. It struggles to make clear to the reader how much bigger a person can be than their physical bodies, how far their reach, how tremendous their power. I found it affecting, troubling and for those reasons, rewarding. I urge you to read this one, and not because I feel impelled to “tell others,” but because this is one of the books that shakes you. Shakes!

Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkaud

I had a slow start with The Bartimaeus Trilogy (of which The Amulet is book one), no doubt because I read it directly on the heels of The Disappeared and felt (rightly or wrongly) that it was too silly, to weightless to be read. Happily I kept reading and allowed The Amulet to be what it is: an engaging, whimsical, (but not frivolous!) exploration of magicians in a modern/fantasy world. I say, “not frivolous,” because the book makes some tentative gestures toward considering how the obligations we owe to one another shape relationships – how every relationship might better be considered in terms of debts owed, paid, and pending. But that said, it’s really something of a romp of magic, spells and incantations. I won’t compare it to other magical stories that cannot be named, but some might.

Mohsin Hamid Moth Smoke

Too bad the holiday had to end with Moth Smoke, a book that ought to be good, but falls flat. A playful use of multiple narrative voices is intended – I think – to let the mystery that structures the plot play out with attention to how narrative biases shape interpretations, but the uniformity in the “different” narrative voices made these attempts to offer unique perspectives on the same event read as a failure in a creative writing class assignment. Which is not to say the whole book was terrible – just it’s organizing principle… The apparent protagonist does experience changes – made less compelling by their attribution to drug use and not to a fundamental shift in character, and the attention to the inequities produced and underpinning class stratification was refreshing.

So there. 4/5 on the summer reads = a pretty great cottage week.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Young Adult Fiction