Thursday, 5 September 2013

REVIEW How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Being thieves in the night depended on the night

Although Louise Penny has published nine crime volumes featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Quebec, ShadePoint has somehow missed out on the whole saga. At long last, and very much better late than never,  this poor situation is brought to a halt with the latest in the series, How The Light Gets In.

Anyone who has read ShadePoint over the years will know that it does have a thing for international fiction, in particular Scandinavian fiction, for harassed existentialist detectives trudging through snow and muttering less than they really mean in quixotic struggles that may end, but never finish. Thus, the advance marketing for How The Light Gets In did capture our imagination. An isolated village, trees, snow, world weary detective, more snow? All the ingredients seemed entirely in place. 

As it turned out, though, ShadePoint wasn’t going to get what it expected. The Gamache novels, if this one is anything to go by, are quite different to, say, the world of Wallander or Morck. Not unenjoyable at all, far from it, but just not what  was anticipated.  They have common elements, but they are not the same experience.

This view was shaping up to be a struggle to explain, when as if by magic, a very apt comparison arrived only yesterday in the form of The Killings at Copenhagen – a collaboration between the makers of Danish TV triumph The Killing, and the Midsomer Murders team. Yes, a Midsomer local is found murdered in Copenhagen. Yes, Midsomer  of Midsomer Murders. That Midsomer Murders. Barnaby and Borgen ...

The fact is, though, ShadePoint has always sneakily quite liked Midsomer Murders, particularly when John Nettles was in it. Nettles is a bit of a legend out here on the peninsula. Midsomer often gets criticized for being small town twee, with its fetes and slaughtered jam makers, potters, poets, sculptors, lollipop ladies (delete as appropriate). Truth is, though, like any small town in Agatha Christie, the kill count can end up high, brutal and gleeful. Don’t ever go to Midsomer it would seem – not even on holiday, not even passing through – it’s a battlefield.  How this very British mild mannered mayhem will play with the icy chill of The Killing – well, I can hardly wait. From an initial incredulousness this bizarre mash up is as eagerly awaited as the second series of Hannibal. What on earth will it be like?

To some extent I think How The Light Gets In may supply us a clue. On the one hand a dark novel of long buried secret, corruption and murder, it is also a small town snapshot, like St Mary Mead, or any small town in Stephen King. There is a bookshop, a lady with a pet duck, the guys who run the B&B, the bistro. Penny’s small village of Three Pines – cut off from the rest of the world’s technological advance (they still have phones on the walls) is at once a comforting space, with maybe just a hint of something darker. Not quite Twin Peaks, of course, but very much Midsomer. While Three Pines has its own isolated beauty and safety, the dangerous world outside will always be headed up the road towards it, guns drawn. If real life Quebec has half of the undercurrents suggested here, you’d be as well giving it as wide a berth as any body farm in Causton, Badger’s Drift or Newton Magna.

I can see how some of Three Pines depiction might be seen as quaint, or even how the marshaling of such a large group of much loved characters (this is the ninth book after all) might occasionally seem too cosy (often Penny has to balance five or six characters simultaneously in exposition dialogue set pieces – which is difficult to pull off) but the overall effect is completely successful. It is actually splendid escapist fun – a balance of an idealized world of neighbourly support and eccentricity that isn’t antisocial with bigger corporate level crimes and dark murder in the city. Agatha Christie is an apt comparison, and with the Quebec setting, it isn’t unhelpful to imagine a cross between something Scandinavian and something English rural. There is even a young computer hacker with just some of the fire of Lisbeth Salander. Gamache wakes not to the thwack of cricket bat and ball, but the slap of ice hockey stick and puck on a frozen pond. After months of ploughing through thick and worthy but ultimately unenjoyable books that haven’t made this blog, it was a total relief to sit back and read an unashamed entertainment, with a very good heart. And a sense of closure, and hope, even. 

One thing, though: if, like me, you’re starting afresh with the wily and worldly Inspector Gamache, I’d say don’t start here. The plotlines of previous novels and their relationships and histories lie like the snow on the pine branches in How The Light Gets In and a far more rewarding experience would await those starting at book one – and ShadePoint would be quite envious of that new journey in the snow.