Sunday, December 11, 2016

Book Review: A Great Reckoning

A Great Reckoning

(the 12th Inspector Gamache novel)

By Louise Penny

Minotaur Books, 2016

Hardcover, 386 pages

In 2014, I called Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In "a triumph in the genre and an absorbing novel altogether." A Great Reckoning is a regression to the mean for the Inspector Gamache series, but that's still a pretty high mean.

It is easy to draw parallels between Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series and the Adam Dalgleish series of books by P.D. James. James's hero and Penny's are similarly principled, brave, charismatic, and soulful. Both command teams of younger investigators who receive lessons in life and work from their mentors. The cases described in the books take both detectives from their city offices to more intimate settings—Gamache drawn somehow repeatedly to the cozy village of Three Pines, Dalgleish posted to a variety of English locations, typically with a touch of the gothic about them.

Phlegmatic, Francophone, and fulfilled in monogamy, Armand Gamache is also an homage to George Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret. The Maigret stories broke with the "puzzle story" tradition of early mystery novels by putting emotional motivations and psychological insight at the center of sleuthing. Penny's books are also intensely psychological, though her practice of spelling everything out could not be more different from Simenon's show-don't-tell minimalism. So much explicitness on Penny's part leaves her readers with little need, or room, to discover meaning on their own.

The emotional themes can be treacly, verging on self-help—the kind of thing one hears in a second-rate commencement speech. But I don't mind it much. Sometimes we need help, and sometimes it can only come from ourselves. Read the Acknowledgments section at the end of this book before you judge.

A good sentence in a novel might be complex (P.D. James) or simple (George Simenon); but either way, sentences are the best way to write literature. The writing in A Great Reckoning includes many staccato sentence-fragments. This is a difficult technique that sometimes succeeds in enhancing drama but sometimes fails by sounding mawkish and theatrical.
But on the village green itself stood the the three tall pines from which the village took its name. Vibrant, straight and strong. Evergreen. Immortal. Pointing to the sky. Daring it to do its worst. Which it planned to do. 
I can't read this and not hear a campily ominous "Soon" as fragment number seven.
He found them in the weight room, where Leduc worked out, searching the lockers. For clues.
How about, "searching the lockers for clues"? Or just: "searching the lockers"? From the context—remember, this is a crime novel—it's pretty clear that these these people are searching for clues. That makes the extra emphasis not just melodramatic, but, again, campy. The temptation to add a silent "duh-duh-duuuuuh" to the end is, to me, irresistible.
A cup of tea sat on his desk beside a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Uneaten.
Well, sure—had the cookies been eaten, they would be in Gamache's stomach, not on his desk. Untouched is the word Penny wanted here. 
Amelia sat forward, leaning toward the stage. Even after the Commander had disappeared. She stared at the empty space once occupied by him.
A good sentence here would have been more effective and more considerate of the reader.

There are some other problems with the writing, such as when two people walk into a bistro brushing wet snow from their coats, and we are confusingly told that outside the bistro it is sleeting, not snowing. In the otherwise effective opening scene, a careful description of Gamache's study omits to tell us that his dog Henri is the room with him, so that Henri bursts awkwardly into the reader's mind mid-stride as he follows Gamache out of the study. One never has such experiences when reading George Simenon or P.D. James.

Of course the writing is also good in places. I laughed when it was said of a profusely sweating man, "If people were mostly water, then this young man was more human than most." And here is a good passage from an exchange between Gamache and his former boss, the corrupt Michel Brébeuf:
Michel Brébeuf looked at Gamache with undisguised tenderness.
But what, Armand asked himself, did that tenderness itself disguise? What was lurking, swishing its tail, in those depths?
(The "swishing its tail" is nice.) The character of Brébeuf exerts strong forces on Gamache, not only because of his dark power, but also because the two were childhood friends. Gamache's vulnerability to Brébeuf's dangerous pull is elegantly conveyed here:
Gamache listened, but didn't nod. Didn't agree or disagree. He was bending much of his will to disengaging from Brébeuf, while still listening closely.
It shouldn't be passed over that Penny, like James a female author, succeeds very well at drawing her main character, with all his complex masculine traits. Relations between men are also well observed, as in this brief exchange between Gamache and Paul Gélinas, a Deputy Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, recently widowed.
(Gélinas speaking) "Brébeuf wouldn't kill the only person not just willing but happy to keep him company. What did he call Leduc?"
(Gamache answering) "His life raft. And now? Are you still lonely?"
     "I was talking about Brébeuf."
He paused to let Gélinas know he was listening, if he wanted to talk. The RCMP officer said nothing more, but his lips compressed, and Gamache turned away to give the man at least the semblance of privacy.

Of the half-dozen or so Inspector Gamache novels that I've read, few match the artistic standard set by most Simenon and James novels. Some ingredients are there, with lifelike characters and cases that put interesting themes on the table. But the books also have limitations that prevent them from rising above the status of genre fiction. Penny might be perfectly comfortable as an excellent genre author, but I wonder if a more forceful literary editor could help her transition from writing good books to writing great ones.

Read this review on Amazon.

In case you missed it: My list of favorite genre fiction.

1 comment:

jeff said...

Sentences are the best way to write literature. Real sentences. Complete sentences. With subject. And predicate. Preferably. In. That. Order.