On Reading a Series: Louise Penny’s “Still Life”

The Minimalist Photographer: Photo Stream &emdash; Snow

Time to snuggle up with a good mystery

Reading a novel series slows down time, I think, and that is a good thing the older one gets. When I follow a series about the same protagonist(s), whether in books or on television/video, something happens to catch me up out of my own life and place me amid another life with just the pertinent highlights. Perhaps that is why binge-watching entire 90-episode series via Netflix or another service is such fun, because it increases that sense of immersion in a time warp.

There are more novel series than there is time in my life to read them. I can read quickly, but I don’t like to, not if the book is any good. Reading slowly enough to form a mental picture of what is happening, right down to the specifics and the emotions, is all part of the immersion process. It’s like savoring every bite of a favorite dessert. In this way, reading is different than watching. When you watch a story, the tempo is controlled by the director, and the experience is fairly passive: you sit back and let it hit you. When you read a story, you are the director visualizing the author’s script, picking out the bits that resonate, filling in the gaps in description, and choosing when to pause and pick up again–if at all.

I read mysteries, almost exclusively. There have been periods of my life where I read large amounts of nearly all kinds of fiction, from classics (English major, duh), translations of the great Russian and French novels, and most of the well-regarded 20th century novels through the 1980’s, including a rather lot of science fiction and fantasy. From the 90’s on I had very little time to read, and when I read, I wanted the coziness of traditional mysteries.

Traditional mysteries are direct descendants of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and there are countless variations of their archetype sleuths. There are gourmet sleuths, tea shop owning sleuths, sleuths owned by their cats, and sleuths who are actually cats. Many of them are comic, light reading, what I like to call “popcorn” mysteries. The more stress that’s in my life, the lighter I like my reading, in order to escape. There was once a three-year stretch when I read nothing but talking-pet mysteries, and another two-year stretch with nothing but nonprofitable shop-owning sleuth mysteries.

These days, I’m back to mysteries of a more literary turn, where character development moves the plot along, a sign that things are relatively sane in my life. Such books are meant to be read more slowly, and savored; I don’t think I would have had the patience and focus to read them during the popcorn period.

One such literary mystery author is Louise Penny. Eight years ago, she debuted her first novel, Still Life, which went on to win oodles of awards, as did her subsequent novels. She is now working on her tenth mystery that features her protagonist, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the village of Three Pines in Quebec. I’m not going to tell you lot about the story itself, because I think you can get that from the author’s site or reading the blurb on Amazon. But I like to think about why I like certain kinds of novels better than others, and how this particular novel is distinctive from others in its category.

Three Pines is a tiny village, so tiny it isn’t even on a map, located south of Montreal and just north of the U.S. border. The village serves as the limited playing field that is common to traditional mysteries. Less common is a protagonist who is an actual policeman, answering to his superiors even as he manages those who must answer to him. The village is comprised of an assortment of normal and eccentric types, as in most traditional mysteries. If you read the book too quickly, you might well think it’s more of the same old same old.

Penny, however, begins the to-be-savored narrative with a short and simple philosophical take on the murder victim’s path to becoming a spread-eagled body, looking “as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.” The second paragraph introduces the Chief Inspector, with his arthritic knees and an expression of surprise that complements the victim’s. All this (and a bit more) fits in two paragraphs on half of a single page (in the library’s hardcover edition). This level of warmth and detail continues through the entire book, and savoring is the only way to get it all.

Now that you know somebody’s been murdered–and somebody cares–you get the back story immediately prior to the discovery of the body.  This introduces the main players in the drama, and greatly increases the number of those who cared about the victim, as well as a hint as to who might benefit from her death, all as a result of the intricacies of village life. Yet here, again, is an old même, a traditional mystery format, that the author makes freshly enjoyable through the subtleties of language and nuanced perspective.

Point of view is important in the structure, tone, and readability of a novel. Third person omniscient lets the reader inside everyone’s head: we can see their thoughts and feelings, and the differences between what they say and what they think. Third person close tells the story from one character’s point of view, but a bit more detached than in the first person. Penny writes in the third person omniscient with unusual depth, almost in third person close with several main characters, yet without losing the omniscient narrative line. She does this with such deep affection for her main characters, warts and all, that a sense of village and community is created–and the story itself told–through sheer character development.

Most of Still Life  is told in the dialogue between the various characters, but it is in the prose passages, the description of the town, the houses, the food, the dog, and the private thoughts and feelings of the various characters, that it comes alive. Penny’s style is so rich and distinctive that I have to be careful about reading her books while I’m on a roll with my own writing, so as not to inadvertently imitate it.

It’s snowing again; more social engagements will likely be cancelled. It’s a good time to read the next Chief Inspector Gamache novel, to curl up with a book as rich and deep as a dark chocolate mocha.

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