Sometimes you come across books that are really good but something about them drives you seriously crazy. I began my summer with such a book, and then went on to the next in the series, and the next, and now I’m six books into a great series that does, indeed, drive me crazy.
I love talking about books but don’t like to openly trash them online, where opinions become permanent. Plus, author karma dictates it will come back to me. However, it’s been three months of reading and I have to talk about it or I’m going to explode. Clearly I like the books if I’ve read six in a row, and when you’ll spend upwards of a hundred bucks to buy them all, well—that’s the other end of author karma, I hope.
My mystery kick began with updates of Sherlock Holmes, but when I exhausted those, I got into the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. Set in the fictional small village of Three Pines in Quebec, the setting and world is a character in and of itself. It reminds me a lot of Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls, but French-ier. The history, culture and conflicts of the region are fascinating and have given me a lot of insight into our neighbors to the north. From language, to attitudes, to cuisine, to art and poetry, the local color is vibrant.
Louise Penny also does something I greatly admire. She writes in an omniscient point of view. It takes a talented writer to pull this off without the changing perspectives becoming jarring, and she does it while managing to focus on certain characters while still incorporating the rest of the cast where relevant. It’s all done very smoothly and to good effect. In mysteries the reader is looking for clues, and the different perspectives heighten the sense of discovery while building on the closeness the reader feels to the characters.
And the cast of characters is remarkable. Progressing through the books, the characters increasingly come across as very flawed human beings, but never lose their likability—even as one of them turns out to be the murderer. And while her characters have a variety of ages and backgrounds, the majority tend to be well into adulthood and past middle age, if not solidly elderly. If there was ever a movie version, you wouldn’t find up-and-coming blockbuster stars cast in these roles, at least not as they’re written.
King of them all is Inspector Gamache, the idealistic father figure who is so kind and wise, I want him to run for President. Too bad he’s French Canadian. And fictional. I’ll also admit that I’m very attracted to him.
But now I get to the part that makes me crazy, and really it’s a stylistic choice by the author which happens to be a pet peeve of mine. At times, Ms. Penny inserts herself as a character by deliberately withholding information. For example, Inspector Gamache can be looking at the murderer, talking to him or her—and the conversation can go on for pages. We know Gamache knows who the murderer is, and yet we aren’t told. Dialog tags suddenly label the character as “the murderer” instead of using the character’s name. Or, Gamache will find a piece of evidence, and we know it’s important, he says it’s important, he’s holding it in his hand, for God’s sake—but we as readers don’t know what it is. The information is deliberately withheld. This is where Penny loses me, and it happens in every book at least a few times. Instead of the story being real, I suddenly have to take a step back and realize that the author is the one telling the story. In essence, she becomes a character who is telling me what happens, instead of the story organically progressing. It’s kind of like a campfire story, done to deliberately build suspense, but the reader suddenly becomes aware that it is, indeed, just a story, so why not get up and roast another marshmallow? I love a good campfire story, but I want to be glued to my seat.
I think writers can manipulate their readers to a degree and get away with it, but no one likes to know they are being manipulated. It takes a subtle hand. I’m a fan of the cut scene. An author can make a choice to end a scene at the point where the revelation is nigh—and even this technique doesn’t work all the time. But for every character in a scene to know what’s going on as it’s going on, but leave the reader in the dark? It’s not my favorite choice and all the machinations of my imagination come to a squeaky, groaning, grinding halt. I’m no longer in the story, I’m outside it. And angry.
I really, really hate it. But now I’m going to end this blog and get back to finishing book six, because I’m dying to find out who the murderer is.
p.s. Just finished and book 6 is 5/5 stars, and she only hid evidence from the reader once, and a character in a conversation once, and not for too long. So what are your reader pet peeves?