My Mama Said, #1: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny

This is the first in an occasional series of posts reviewing books that my mum challenges me to read. She’s a huge reader and I so rarely get recommendations from other people. Technically, she wants me to read all of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books, but of the ones on the shelves in my grandparents’ house, this is the earliest number in the series, so I’ve started here.

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The premise: In Three Pines, a sleepy Québecois village, a man is found bludgeoned to death inside Olivier’s Bistro. No one recognises him, and the murder weapon is nowhere to be found. As Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté investigates, the neighbourly veneer of Three Pines is stripped away to reveal deep-rooted deceit.

Plot stuff: The Brutal Telling is a slow burn to start with. There are multiple false leads, the investigation takes time to work out that the body has been moved not once but twice, and the discovery of the murder scene at the victim’s home–which contains the most significant evidence–comes only halfway through the book. Once the investigation knows which direction to go, though, there are some really excellent clues: a spider’s web that appears to have the word “WOE” woven into its design; two beautiful and terrifying wood-carvings; the legend of the Mountain King; and a linguistic cipher known as Caesar’s Shift. My ma likes these books for their propagation of a grace and forgiveness ethos, and although that ethos caused me to question several moments in the book (what self-respecting Chief Inspector would blithely attend dinner parties hosted by potential suspects?), that’s what gives The Brutal Telling emotional heft. The final unraveling is quite complicated, but the ultimate story–of betrayal, vengeance, shame, and greed–is recognizably human. Gamache’s response to crime is always deeply compassionate; it is an unusual choice in this genre to write a chief inspector who, although he has no illusions about human nature, seems devoid of cynicism.

Technical stuff: I struggle with what appears to be widespread reader consensus that Penny is an exceptional prose stylist. There are certainly passages where she hooks emotion out of the reader; usually they’re the ones that involve characters responding to a work of art, whether it’s a painting, a wood carving, or an old Celtic dance tune played on a Bergonzi violin. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, though, I can’t see where the stylistic skill is meant to be, though I can see a lot of authorial tics. Most frustrating among these: rhythmic repetitiveness, overstatement, and the commencement of sentences with a conjunction. Here’s an example of all three:

As he followed the Chief’s car back to Three Pines Beauvoir thought about that, and agreed that Olivier had saved the precious antiques, and spent time with the crabby old woman. But he could have done it and still given the old woman a fair price.

But he hadn’t.

“Precious” and “crabby” have no place in that sentence; neither tells us anything we don’t already know, and the latter in particular strikes an oddly prim tone in a book that is also quite content to allow two of its positively regarded characters to use words like “fag” and “whore” in apparent jest. (The tonal disjunctions are chronic, and I’ll talk about them in a moment.) To start two consecutive sentences with “but” is unconscionable, and the one-sentence paragraph is a literary tool that needs immediate retirement. In this case, it also functions the way “precious” and “crabby” do, which is to say, it tells us something we already know. If an author does this too much, the reader begins to assume that the author thinks we’re stupid.

Genre stuff: The Brutal Telling exists at a kind of generic crossroads. On the one hand, it has all of the trappings of a “cosy”: small and apparently friendly rural settlement with a disproportionately high and frequent murder rate, eccentric locals for both comic effect and pearls of wisdom, an unflappable Lawful Good figure, and a propensity to center intense emotion upon activities or institutions that, in a larger community, would be able to remain marginal. Three Pines is a literary relation of St Mary Mead, by way of the county of Midsomer, and quite possibly the North Carolina village of Mitford. And yet (and this is present in the Mitford novels too, but Jan Karon gives herself an easier time by not raising the stakes to include deliberate taking of lives) there’s a distinct metaphysical seriousness to this novel, and presumably the rest of Penny’s work too. The reveal of the murderer here is so devastating because they have betrayed trust–not just that of their neighbours and loved ones, but that of the readers, who have (no spoilers) known this character for five books. The seriousness of betrayal is vividly portrayed in the story of the Mountain King, which reappears throughout the book: the King is robbed by a young man who first befriends him, and who is pursued forever by the forces of Chaos, Sorrow, and something “worse than Death”. This turns out to be Conscience, and I think Penny’s aim with the surprisingly compassionate Gamache and the explicit references to allegorical spiritual figures is to situate the horrors of crime in a basis more profound than the integrity of the law; we are meant to understand that murder is a crime of, and against, not just the body but the soul. That combination–cosy atmosphere, extremely serious core–is the source of Penny’s tonal dissonance, but also of her ambition.

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21 thoughts on “My Mama Said, #1: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny

  1. “the one-sentence paragraph is a literary tool that needs immediate retirement” GOD YES I absolutely detest this. Also I could read your sentence-by-sentence critiques for days, please do more of these!

    • I loved close reading as a student, it was my favourite bit. Depressingly, I find it much easier to close-read bad prose, and because I try not to read books that I know will annoy me stylistically, I don’t often get the chance!

      • I know right, it’s so much more fun to tear a sentence apart than to congratulate it for getting its job done. Well, I’m selfishly looking forward to your next stylistically frustrating read!

  2. Love the dissection of the prose here – I also hate one-sentence paragraphs, especially if the sentences are short (I can imagine forgivable ones produced from very lengthy sentences!). I think it’s the only prose tic that actually renders books unreadable for me, e.g. Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome crime novels.

    • Authors seem to use them as a kind of “gotcha!”, a sting in the tail, but they can’t work that way if there’s no gotcha (like here where we already know the guy didn’t pay a fair price), so instead they just feel unnecessary.

    • I definitely understand why people like them, but honestly if you google reviews they’re ALL about the quality of the prose and I just don’t get that. There are plenty of other likeable things about Gamache and his team. Then again, All The Light We Cannot See is habitually described as “beautifully written”, which makes me wonder whether it’s just difficult to tell the difference between beautiful writing and very *present* writing, IYSWIM.

  3. Agree that the prose won’t win any prizes for great writing but its the way she creates atmosphere that I think makes this series better than many crime novels

    • There’s definitely a strong sense of atmosphere, which does set it apart – so many crime novels feel generic and you do believe that hers is written with reference to a specific (even real) place.

  4. Very interesting, and an excellent close reading of a representative passage. I’ve had Penny widely recommended (including by my own mother and by Karen, above) as someone I might enjoy even though I almost never read crime. So much so that I’ve suggested her as a future book club selection (or Tana French, or Laura Lippman). I see you started with #5; I was advised to jump to #3 or further as the first two are a little shaky. To be honest (she says snobbishly), I wouldn’t really be expecting literary quality from the prose of any crime novel. Are you more willing to excuse stylistic infelicities in genre fiction, which is usually more plot- and/or character-driven anyway? Will you read more from the series?

    • Nope – I’ve read enough beautifully-written genre (Tana French; Dorothy L Sayers; Jeff VanderMeer; Ursula LeGuin) that it feels vaguely insulting to expect a lower prose quality just because a novel includes a murder or an alien. I may try another novel earlier or later in the series, to see if the things that I noticed (both good and less so) are endemic to the series or are more of a thing just in this one novel. My mum really does like them and I wonder if, in a different mood, they might be a perfect choice.

  5. Cindy says:

    This series gets high praise on quite a few blogs and podcasts I follow, and I was thinking of reading them (in order) before I go to Montreal and Quebec in September. I will start at the very beginning a la the Sound of Music song – but you can be sure I will be looking out for all of the tics now!

    • There are absolutely loads of them, so good luck! I think I may try another one, for the reasons I mentioned to Rebecca, above – the things I noticed may register differently in a different novel.

  6. Great review! I haven’t read Louise Penny but have heard her books recommended many times. It strikes me that there is probably a lot of cultural influence behind her work. Quebec, and especially rural Quebec, has a deeply religious and Catholic history and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s at work in her books.

    • Thank you! That Catholic influence makes a lot of sense. At points Gamache takes on the qualities of a confessor, at other times he’s a figure of almost Christ-like forgiveness, and at other points still he’s more of a judging deity.

  7. The last book my mom made me read was Nora Roberts… but she acknowledged it was bad! I tried Louise Penny a few years ago and felt like a bad Canadian because I don’t get the hype either. I found the writing sloppy and too simplistic.

    • I love the idea that loving Louise Penny is part of being a Good Canadian! In fairness, she does kind of make me want to visit rural Quebec; it sounds idyllic (minus the murders).

  8. Thank you so much for this brilliant analysis, you actually explained what I felt about Louise Penny’s mysteries that I couldn’t really articulate. I tried but it’s not for me. You said why 100 times better.

    • Thank you – that’s very kind! I do think they’re brilliantly atmospheric, but close reading does reveal some of the writing’s weaknesses.

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