Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: The Brutal Telling by Lousie Penny

The Brutal Telling
by Louise Penny,
(c) 2009
Minotaur Books New York
372 p

I must admit, I had a little trouble getting caught up in this story and I haven't sorted out why yet. I was immediately drawn in by the first chapter loving Penny's use of language, the mood and setting, the hints of mythic themes. But then the next 20 to 30 pages had me feeling confused and discombobulated and I kept putting it down and resisted picking it back up. The mythic undertone went missing, the stage felt cluttered with a crowd of clowns clamoring for my attention with which they played ping-pong--for point of view kept shifting among them from paragraph to paragraph and even inside paragraphs. Often I was unsure which of the several characters on scene were speaking.

There are a number of explanations for my difficulties and not all of them the author's fault. I tend to be slow-to-warm-up for one. Whether it's a book, a task, a social interaction, I usually need more time and effort than most to get engaged. Or it may have been due to having been shook up by the fall I took the evening after I'd read the first chapter but before proceeding on, having tripped over our cat Merlin and fallen flat out on my chest knocking the wind out of me and jarring my joints and bones. A bruised hand made it hard to hold this 372 page hardback and the twinges of pain distracted me who am so easily distractible.

One explanation for my slow start that puts all the blame on me could be that I was trying to read too fast whereas Penny's use of language demands savoring like fine cuisine and her wit cannot be captured in flyby sightings.

A possible contributor to my confusion was being unsure of pronunciations of the French words and names scattered throughout. If so, that could have been solved by encountering these links to audio clips of pronunciations on Penny's website before beginning the book. Especially the one for repeating characters for the series and the one for The Brutal Telling itself.

Whatever the explanation, I persevered, and carried by the momentum of that awesome first chapter which planted the need to know who and why--a most crucial element of a mystery story after all--I was soon captivated by the story and the cast of eccentric characters from Ruth the curmudgeonly poet and her pet duck Rosa to Myrna the ex-psychologist now used bookstore owner; from Peter and Clara wedded artists to Dominique and Marc about to open a high-end spa and inn; from Gabri and Olivier a gay couple who run adjoining bistro and Bed and Breakfast to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his entire team of personally trained investigators.

I used to read murder mysteries by the book bag full but only pick them up occasionally now as it seemed I was always solving the mystery inside of fifty pages and unless there was something else compelling about the story it would be hard to resist skipping to the end to confirm my guess and then moving on but since I hate doing that it seemed better to not start them at all. But not only did Penny's Brutal Telling have more going for it than just a mystery to solve, I could not figure it out after fifty pages... or one-hundred... or two-hundred. In fact I had not figured it out before the moment Gamache himself sprung his solution near the end.

Maybe I could not figure it out because I did not want it to be true for the culprit had become for me one of the beloved characters populating the village of Three Pines--as beloved by me as by the friends and community surrounding and supporting [her/him.]

Chief Inspector Gamache and his team are called in when a body is discovered in the bistro. A body of a stranger that no one in the tight-knit community of Three Pines, a small village just outside of Montreal in Canada, claims to know. Having no identity for the victim is bad enough but the investigation soon reveals that the body had been placed there some time after the murder. So the bistro wasn't even the murder scene.

No weapon. No evidence at all that connects anyone to this mysterious stranger let alone shows them with motive or opportunity. But though physical evidence and forensics plays a role it is not the center of focus as Inspector Gamache looks within the human heart for the key that unlocks the mystery.

Gamache works with a team of agents he personally trained and each one is a well developed character in their own right. And although some more easily take to his laid back methods and strange intuitive leaps, all adore, respect and trust Armand Gamache and take to heart his advice:

“…to catch a killer they didn’t move forward. They moved back. Into the past. That was where the crime began, where the killer began. Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, had lodged inside the murderer. And he’d begun to fester.

What kills can’t be seen, the Chief had warned Beauvoir. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s not a gun or a knife or a fist. It’s not anything you can see coming. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled. And waiting for a chance to strike.”

And so they go about collecting the hard evidence, asking questions and listening intently to the answers and observing the behaviors of the community as it reacts to this brutal interruption of the idyllic life they believed they'd been living. It becomes clear that Armand Gamache operates on the assumption that the line dividing good and evil is drawn within each human heart and every heart is capable of incubating either chaos or compassion, terror or trust, brutality or tenderness and outcomes whether welcomed or feared all depend on crucial choices made within the inner sanctum or our souls where the endless struggle between fear and love plays out. And those choices are influenced by the stories we tell ourselves and each other. If you tell brutal stories you are bound to have brutal consequences. This recognition on Penny's part of something I'd long come to believe--that the power of story goes beyond mere entertainment to that of a veritable co-creator of our lives--was the lasso that roped me in.

Before long so many secrets and lies are unearthed and the potential suspects have proliferated to such a stunning number, one is left wondering if the idyllic community life was nothing but an illusion masking a festering, rancid heart of darkness. Maybe even goodness itself is nothing more than illusion and the true nature of us all is a rage and terror filled soul awaiting the least nudge into chaos and criminal acts?

Setting is handled as skillfully as character and plot intricacy. With setting Penny creates and plays our emotions like a musician an instrument. The village of Three Pines is, still after several days, so vivid in my mind I feel I could get there if I just knew the correct bus route to ask for. And I want to get there. Maybe even live there. Though Myrna already has my dream location and I'm not sure I'd fit in anywhere else. And I'm afraid Ruth would mark me as an interloper and poke me with her cane and drop cryptic verse couplets into my pockets and I'd end up waddling around in her wake like Rosa.

This was my first Inspector Gamache story and I'm definitely psyched to discover there are four preceding this one in which I can hope to get better acquainted with the Inspector, his family, his team and the colorful, eccentric Three Pine villagers. I learned of this book from a review online last October that prompted me to immediately check our library and finding it on-order got in queue for it. My turn came last week. I just learned our library does have all five titles but, sadly, only one copy of Still Life, the first one, which has 12 holds on it, and I do want to read the first four in order now that I know about them as I think part of my problem committing to the story at first was a sense of dislocation, of having been dropped into the middle of something and feeling clueless. But on the other hand that may have been intentional on the part of Penny as the investigators themselves must feel like that at the beginning of every new case. At any rate, I still want to read them in order so I've got a bit of a wait


Some interesting facts and links:

The order of the five Inspector Gamache mysteries:


* the 2nd and 4th were released under two titles for some mysterious publishing reason--the first for US and the second for UK. As a writer this would really, really, really annoy me. Most of my own stories begin as a title coupled to a single scene around which all the rest coalesce--especially theme and metaphor. For me my titles are crucial to my connection to the story and I would have as much difficulty recognizing them with a different title as a mother would her infant that was given a face-lift. I suppose that makes me a 'difficult author' from whom agents and editors would flee? *sigh*

Do visit Louise Penny's website which is lovely and chock-a-block with photographs that I'm sure are meant to impart the flavor of rural Quebec where the novels are set.

Don't pass up Louise Penny's blog which she regularly posts to with not just announcements of promotional events but very personal journal entries.

Check out Louise Penny's awards and honors for the first four novels. (now I simply must get my hands on Still Life. 12 in queue for 1 copy x 3 weeks = *sigh*)

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