Friday, May 30, 2008

Still Lives

I just finished Still Life by Louise Penny, which I started on Tuesday night. I'd heard so many good things about it and I really must say it (mostly) lives up to the hype. It's a classic cozy set in rural Quebec and it captivates, with its taut, clever puzzle and refreshing sense of place. Plus, it has a spinster!

The author clearly likes W.H. Auden, as she quotes him all the time, which was very timely and interesting to me because I just read an essay of his (more on that later) so I had Auden on the brain anyway. Penny adroitly works in numerous literary references into her book without seeming snotty about it, though her gay characters constantly referencing Oscar Wilde seems a little on the nose. (Her depiction of gay men is quite funny. Apparently they like Bed and Breakfasts, antiques, Wilde, and "It's Raining Men." Who knew?)

"Evil," says Auden,"is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table." This sentiment seems to be the driving force behind the book and it is still singularly chilling no matter how accustomed we may have grown to the idea of evil in a small town. Other themes are explored, like greed and avarice, which are resoundingly condemned as the ultimate evil. There's a marvelous character named Yolande who embodies pretense, avarice and all things evil, as evidenced by her too-clean house (Lemon Pledge = pure evil).

Penny's character of inspector Gamache has drawn praise from authors like Reginald Hill, who compare him to Inspecteur Maigret, and he's not far off the mark. Both inspectors share an endearing humbleness and humanity, a gentle optimism in the face of unspeakable crimes. Penny also introduces another element to the team of police trying to solve the case: Agent Nichol, a rookie who actually stymies the case with her pig-headedness and bad attitude. I found myself wondering if this type of personage had appeared in other detective novels, if there was precedent. I wondered about her role in the case and if she would ultimately find redemption. She was a very interesting foil to Gamache, and created a great deal of suspense by blundering the case. If anyone knows more about her character I'd love to hear it. It would be the first question I'd put to Penny, actually.

So, while Still Life conforms to the rule of the cozy sub-genre closely enough to satisfy even Auden, it also manages to bring number of new and refreshing angles to the narrative. I'm also interested in reading the Temperance Brennan series now, since apparently she's a forensic investigator in Montreal. I guess I'll stay on my Quebec kick for a while. (Also, I guess the author of the books was the inspiration for the character in Bones, a show I'd love to watch if only I had more time ... sigh. Note to self: quit job and become full-time blogger/TV watcher. Pay bills later.) Quebecois crime has been in the news lately too, which makes everything seem all the more timely. This fun Jezebel commentary has lots of cute people exclaiming, "You guys have crime in Canada? How quaint!" To which I say, yes, duh, we have crime, both organized and random. But it's all in the spirit of fun: Canuckisms are always entertaining, and I enjoyed stumbling upon them in Penny's book, like when characters say "Tabernacle" and stuff, which is pretty much the best swear word ever.

Auden says, in his essay "The Guilty Vicarage," that we like detective stories because they return us to Eden, a state of innocence (everything is rectified after the fall) and that in turn this desire is born out of guilt: "The magical satisfaction [the detective story provides] ... is the illusion of being dissociated from the murder. The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt."

To which I say, perhaps. But this is rather highfalutin. I just like something that absorbs me completely on my long, dreary commutes. And I found that, prior to getting really into the genre, I was beginning to suffer from narrative fatigue. I was growing tired of books where people share and grow and learn and talk about their feelings and families and angst. I was tired, more than anything, of any story with a romantic angle. I was tired of stories that went nowhere, dammit. Mysteries, I found, had an inherent narrative drive, and could not, must not, meander slowly and pointlessly and navel-gaze solispsistically at the main characters' interior impulses and drives, or else they would be ... suspense thrillers. I just very quickly and suddenly developed extreme impatience with anything that didn't

a) make me laugh
b) tire me out with relentless and rapid page turning

I became the human equivalent of Homer Simpson sitting on the couch yelling at the TV during an episode of McGarnagle -- "It means he gets results, you stupid chief!"

And, although Auden denies it, I think we still do watch/read mysteries because of that whole catharsis thing. As Rex Banner says, "It's not up to us to choose which laws we obey. If it was, I'd shoot everyone that looked at me cock-eyed." See? Everything in my psyche can be explained by the Simpsons.

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