[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest, along with eight other book lovers. Versions of these book reviews first appeared in her store's newsletter.]
“A Rule Against Murder,” by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, $24.95)
This may be the most traditional of Canadian writer Louise Penny’s now four novels, though she has been labeled from the beginning as a “traditional” mystery writer. And indeed, she does write in the same tradition that Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Agatha Christie were following (and helped create), but she has managed to make this old form her own. She has an exceptional gift with prose, and the character development she brings to her writing is very modern. In each book, Penny has manages to slightly change up her formula to make each story feel fresh, and this one is no exception.
Using another timeless mystery trope – Penny takes her series character out of his familiar surroundings – she’s still able to make this seem new by painting a verbal portrait of each of the characters in the story. It’s as though Agatha Christie has come back and re-written “Ten Little Indians,” only using fully fleshed characters. It’s extremely entertaining, but Penny is enough of a psychologist to eventually make the effect disturbing, as the people in the novel, and their problems and sadnessess, begin to take on three dimensions instead of the two they are allotted on the page.
Inspector Gamache and his wife, the lovely Reine-Marie, have gone to celebrate their anniversary at the charming Manior Bellechasse, which nevertheless seems to have an air of mystery hanging over it, set up in part by an atmospheric prologue. They have spent every anniversary there and are expected; they come prepared to enjoy everything that comes their way.
They are surrounded, however, by the Finney family, who have no such plans to enjoy themselves. This troubled, complicated and alienated family stand apart from each other like prickly hedgehogs – everything they say to each other offends or wounds, and they retreat to their own corners to brood. To the surprise of Armand and Reine-Marie, two of their friends from Three Pines are part of this family. Gamache himself is coming to terms with some old family history that’s teased out throughout the book, but the main part of the plot involves the murder of one of the Finneys, Julia, the most distant of the siblings.
I’ve heard Louise say that she thinks the manner of the death is the least important aspect of the story, and that may be true in terms of the characters and the story arc, but she’s managed, once again, to set up a fiendishly clever manner of death with a seemingly impossible manner of implementation. Simply put, Julia is killed by a falling statue that couldn’t fall over. The way Gamache figures it out is sort of the way a sculptor works – he keeps polishing up aspects of the crime, and polishing and revealing the characters until they are clearer and clearer, until the solution itself is also clear. The way the characters are knit together, and the way the Gamaches respond to them, is richly layered, complex, and frequently humorous.
I also appreciate the fact that this author chooses not to hit the reader over the head with details or even explain everything that happens. There are some details left up to the reader to figure out, and I appreciate the respect she has for her readers to be able to do that. When you finish the book, I think you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you’ll probably enjoy thinking about it as much as I have. Now you can read “A Rule Against Murder” yourself and discover its delights on your own.
“All the Colors of Darkness,” by Peter Robinson (Harper Collins, $25.99)
For a long time now, Peter Robinson’s fine Inspector Banks books haven’t just been mysteries, but novels. The longer he’s written, the sharper and more keenly observed his books have become, and Banks himself is so real I’ve had many conversations with customers over the years about his love life and his children. Banks long ago joined the “canon” of classic police Inspectors – by all rights there should be a group meeting of Rebus, Morse, Lynley and Dalgleish – perhaps presided over by Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, of whom they are all direct descendants.
I think the modern police novel is one of the most adept forms at dealing with the realities of modern life, as it can take in its sweep life in the workplace, family life, and relationships – romantic and otherwise – between men and women. Banks himself is a case in point – in the course of the novels he’s gotten divorced, his children have grown up, and his ex-wife has remarried and had another child. In this novel he has a new girlfriend, Sophia. (I was actually a little behind on Robinson’s books and e-mailed a few friends to see if Sophia was worthy of Banks. Opinion was mixed).
Robinson opens his book with an epigraph from “Othello” and indeed the novel develops into a thoughtful treatise on jealousy, though telling what forms it takes would be giving things away. The story begins with the discovery of a hanged man by some school boys out for a swim on a hot day. When the man’s lover is also found dead, the plot of course ratchets up. This is a fairly simple story, and in other hands it might remain that way, but Robinson sees all the shades of character – indeed, “All the Colors of Darkness” as the title promises.
As the book develops it encompasses P.I. work, the MI6, trouble with Banks’ boss, and a stabbing on an estate that Banks leaves to be solved by his team while he spends a bit of time in London with Sophia and works the main case off the books on his own. This has all sorts of repercussions, and late in the book is a moving and memorable action sequence that tightens the actions and the feelings of everyone involved.
As I said, I know intellectually that Banks isn’t a real person, but every time I finish one of these fine books, I’m not so sure in my heart. Each book is a little look into a life that seems to be going on after you close the covers, and one that will be picked up again with the next book. There is hardly a greater gift that any writer can give to a reader.