A Trick of the Light. Louise Penny.

Penny, Louise. A Trick of the Light. Minotaur New York, 2011. F; 07/12

A Canadian Agatha Christie, Ms. Penny “just keeps getting better and better” says the bibliophile lady at Talewind Books in Sechelt. Well, she’s good, but I don’t think she quite manages the famously difficult trick she’s set for herself: writing a whodunit which is also independently a real novel. And unlike some of the wonderful mystery writers in history, she tips her hand and we know she’s trying pretty hard. Too bad both the literary merit and the suspense get pulled under in the attempt, however brave it may have been.

We are led to understand that this is one in a series of novels about Inspector Gamache, and indeed it’s anchored by a redoubtable anglo-Québecois Sherlock Holmes investigating a murder. And no time is wasted as, in the style of the first scene of Law and Order, the dead body appears promptly on page 30.Yup, somebody sure cut through that fence all right.

Part of reaching for the real novel is the Inspector trying to come to terms with his guilt over a police operation recently gone wrong, where he and his sidekick were both shot, and four other officers killed. Somebody leaked a video of it to the Internet and nobody looks good. The sidekick is in love with the Inspector’s daughter, the setting is a small town and the art world including painters, critics, gallery owners, and various minor characters. And finally, as Louise Penny lets us know till we really don’t need to be told anymore, it’s all about chiaroscuro, as a metaphor for darkness and light, as a metaphor for life and death, as a metaphor for good and evil, etc. Without the whodunit puzzle we’d have put the book aside as literature somewhere around page 60, the second time she breaks narrative stride to wave that semiotic in our faces.

But we keep reading because we’ve signed on for the formula game of “Clue”: Miss Scarlet in the dining room with a lead pipe? Mr. Mustard in the garage with carbon monoxide? Are we smart enough to figure it out in advance? Maybe the murderer will be the Inspector himself! Or Clara the wonderful artistic female protagonist. There are five or six credible candidates and we watch the brilliant Inspector working his way through them. But when we get to the big dramatic scene where he finally reveals the dirty rat who did it we don’t give a damn any more. A fundamental failure of orchestration I’d say. Plus the culprit is among the least interesting of the many characters. Big letdown.

Ms. Penny tries to up the whodunit voltage using an annoying device where something happens and we don’t know what it is, but have to remember it anyway because it happens just before we switch scenes. Mary Ann finishes her coffee, turns around, and can’t believe her eyes… and then (new chapter) we’re with another policeman grilling another art dealer.

There are a couple of offsetting pluses. Our author is trenchant and merciless with characters. Peter, husband of the artistic female protagonist, is weak. He knows it, wife Claire knows it, the marriage is dissolving because of it, and the fundamental deficiency is he fails to believe in himself.

Violence (not the murder itself actually) is almost gentle and remorselessly psychological. The Québec Chief Justice befriends, through AA, a punk rocker. It turns out they’ve both run over children with their cars.

That could also explain the strange connection between the Chief Justice and young Brian. Both knew what it felt like to hear the soft thud. The hesitation of the car.

And to know what it was.

This serious human emotion was the most impressive part of the book. Unfortunately it didn’t make up for 1) heavy-handed figurative grasping which doesn’t work, and 2) an ultimately anticlimactic whodunit dénouement. 7.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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