Monday, March 02, 2009

A Country House excursion

Though a country house cozy is not my usual reading material, I found myself reading a copy of Louise Penny's new novel (The Murder Stone in the U.K., A Rule Against Murder in the U.S.) over last weekend. For almost 100 pages, the squabbles of a family attempting a weekend reunion are all that interrupt an anniversary trip to a remote Quebec manor house/inn by Inspector Gamache and his wife. After the inevitable death (with a novel murder weapon), the investigation by Gamache and his team from the homicide division of the Montreal Sureté competes for attention with the family squabbles. The solution to the crime is as novel as the choice of weapon, and the somewhat drawn-out ending manages to reestablish order and family and the calm of the lakeside inn. I'm caricaturing the story: Penny is actually very skillful in making the characters (and their disturbed family) interesting, and there's quite a bit of humor (including a running gag about a child named Bean whose sex has never been disclosed by the mother to anyone in or out of her family). When the investigation kicks in, there's a passage about Gamache (about whom I've seen the claim that he's a unique creation, with some justification) that I think is interesting, particularly in contrast to another book I've just added to my tbr pile: Fred Vargas's Chalk Circle Man.

Penny characterizes one of the murder squad members as a "hound" and another as a "hunter," and then goes on to say: "And Gamache? He knew he was neither the hound nor the hunter. Armand Gamache was the explorer. He went ahead of all the rest, into territory unknown and uncharted. He was drawn to the edge of things. To the places old mariners knew, and warned, 'Beyond here be monsters.'" That's sort of true about Gamache, but how much more true is it of Vargas's Inspector Adamsberg? In fact, Vargas's novels have something in common with the cozy form: each book, whether urban or rural, carefully delineates a small community, bound by family, clan, or proximity, and draws out a strange story through her odd investigative team, chiefly the indeed very odd Adamsberg, who frequently runs right off the edge of the cliff into the realm of monsters. What keeps Vargas's books from really being cozies is the distance from "normal" life that she's willing to travel, and though she allows order to be reestablished at the end, it's a tentative order, shaken by the threats that Adamsberg has uncovered and beaten back. Some of the more outré aspects of Vargas's stories (werewolves, the plague, etc.) end up having rational explanations--but always with the supernatural and strange elements remaining just off-stage, ready to reenter, even after being unmasked. Penny's book is a pleasant read, skillfully managed and fun, in many ways a modernization of the traditional mystery, within the strict limits she has set out (murders in or around a tiny town in Quebec, a seasonal theme for the four books so far in the series). Vargas creates strict limits for each story only to turn them inside out, in scholarly as well as supernatural ways, and readers who are willing to follow her will be treated to startling rather than reassuring tales. That, I guess, is why I'm more interested in Vargas: I've always looked for something startling or arresting in the fiction I read, whatever the genre. The Murder Stone is characterized on the cover as "An Inspector Gamache Crime Novel": a few years ago, that would surely have been "An Inspector Gamache Mystery" and not to insist on sub-genres too heavily, I think the word "mystery" would still be more accurate advertising: Gamache and the cozy/country end of mystery fiction are less about the crime, really, than about a solution, a resolution, a resettling of the scene into its calm normal state. I enjoyed my excursion into Penny's rural Quebec mystery, but I'm really looking forward to Vargas's twisted crime in what I understand is actually the very first Adamsberg novel, only now available in English.

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