Salutations: The Penny Edition

I’ve neglected my blog for months. Too busy reading, writing, revising, and traveling. Oh right. And teaching. And now as I write, the sun shines warm, the garden is planted, school is out, and I have a need to let the denouement of my next novel simmer. So among my summer goals is to catch up with posts. (And fill recycle bins in my office, finish revisions, start writing a new story, and… But really, I do hope to post more!)

I started this post in March – and let it sit thinking it would be a standard report of the month’s reading. But it turned into the ‘Louise Penny Edition’ and indeed her books were akin to an addiction that prevented me from doing many things I ought to have done – including finishing this post. Now here’s the thing. I am not a fan of murder mysteries. I’m really not. Why would I enjoy reading about killing? But… I got hooked.

It’s my guy’s fault. He loves crime stories and is compulsive enough to read all of any author he discovers. That’s right. All Elmore Leonard. All Grisham. All Scott Turow. All James Lee Burke. All Michael Connely. Come last Christmas, he approached a ‘book hole’ which led me to panic about finding his gifts for under the tree. Bless Michael Connelly for writing a new Harry Bosche novel in time for the holiday, but I needed more.

And that’s when I remembered a friend who loved Louise Penny. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘I’ll finally get him to read a female author!’ To be fair, he’s not entirely exclusive in his preference for male authors, but did you see women listed above? Okay. To be fair, I read a lot more women than men. But I believe – and you’ll just have to trust me on this – I’m more gender-neutral in my reading than he. Still – Louise Penny under the tree and a chance to tug on my guy’s chain? Delicious!

And we had a winner! I’d previously read one Inspector Gamache mystery – somewhere in the middle and I wasn’t hooked. But I was curious about how the series began. So as soon as he finished reading his Christmas gift – Still Life – I started turning the pages. And turning the pages… Till now I eagerly await her next book in August. Meanwhile, my guy is currently on book seven. He reads. I devour. This makes our conversations tricky. I ask ‘What’s happening now?’ But I’m harnessed by the need to avoid spoilers. But we’ve both had fun with our new friends in Three Pines, Quebec. We’d like to eat at the Bistro, walk the village green, stop by Myrna’s bookstore – if only we might not encounter a murderer along the way.

 

What makes these stories compelling enough for me to read murder mysteries? I’ve pondered the question. Penny’s characters are a big part of the picture along with the idyllic – though treacherous – village of Three Pines. In book one, I was intrigued with the villagers. By book two, I knew these people well and found a lot to like in most – even the murderers (sometimes.)

I also see an appeal to mysteries I missed before. It’s figuring it out. Following the clues. Guessing the outcome. It’s the crossword puzzle process with the complexity of human foibles. And of course, it’s the drama. What can be more dramatic than death? Where do we find higher stakes?

Until book seven, though, the mysteries were a lark for me. But oh book seven! The actual mystery in Bury Your Dead is less compelling than the human questions of what it takes, what it costs, to be a leader of men and women under one’s command. The treatment is deft and on the money for how Armand Gamache sees that privilege and burden.

Those human questions and the tolls of leadership – even when foisted rather than chosen – continue through the rest of the series. I’ll confess that some of the mysteries themselves occasionally seem contrived – or perhaps I simply don’t find them as interesting as the relationships between characters and the moral dilemmas that present themselves within those relationships. Those remain fascinating.

So do I recommend Louise Penny’s books? Without question! They’re witty and charming with a hefty dose of fun to lighten the deep and challenging questions of living.

(I’ve read other books since March too. Stay tuned. I’ll catch up someday.)

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