Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cozies and Louise Penny's Three Pines series

Author: Louise Penny
Titles: Still Life (Mass-market paperback)
A Rule against Murder (Audiobook, read by Ralph Cosham)
ISBNs: Still Life: 9780312948559; Rule against Murder: 9781433251306
Publishers: St. Martin's (2007); Blackstone Audio (2009)

Detective: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, at the Sûrété du Quebec
Setting: Three Pines, a fictional village in Quebec
Genre: Cozy but with psychological complexity that is rewarding. Series seems to focus on artists and the act of creation; generational miscues and attempts to communicate; group dynamics; psychological growth or entrapment

I'm confused by the "cozy" genre of mysteries. I guess they're supposed to make you feel cozy and happy . . . about murder? About not being murdered? Generally, they seem to produce "feel-good" murder stories. At their worst, they tend to kill off threats/scapegoats (not "nice" people) and preserve the strength of the community through the ultimate expulsion. On the positive side, cozies do not intend to glorify violence or crime; they show it as a tragedy and chart the subtle ways murder can affect a community and the psychological dynamics within it.

The cozies I've read feature close-knit groups of people who happen to live in places where many murders occur. That's where the genre gets a bit dicey for me. If these are such great places, why do so many people die in them? I am reminded of the TV show Murder, She Wrote. Why weren't people shunning Jessica Fletcher or running like hell from her? Why wasn't she banished from Cabot Cove? Nothing good happened while she was around.

In more seriousness, it is a worthwhile project to think about how crime affects a community, and in this, cozies excel. Often, mystery novels forget to trace the longstanding, painful effects of violent crime: how families/friends of victims, suspects, the police, and so forth all cope with the fallout. If some of the cozies I've read tend to idealize community ties and affluence, they also provide well-drawn and interesting characters and seem more psychologically astute than the standard plot-driven whodunnit.

Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series features a great main character and an interesting community in Quebec. I have learned much about the English/Quebecois relationship in Canada from the two books I've read. Penny is a great plotter and her mysteries have interesting twists and turns. She makes you feel exasperated and fond of her characters on alternating pages, and she does not idealize them. They are flawed and yet still likable. If these books tend toward a certain worship of Gamache, I have to sympathize, because he truly is a great character. Sometimes the denizens of Three Pines are a bit too talented, too progressive, too witty, too sensitive and artistic to be believable, but at the same time, the place seems appealing as well. Gamache is an outsider in a sense to the community, which is an important, useful device because this way readers, like him, can evaluate the positive and negatives in the community. I've found the plots very interesting and engaging; Penny is a good storyteller and does a great job of creating tension. The two books in the Three Pines series I've read, the first and fourth, are very interesting, and I'm going to keep reading the series. Louise Penny is a great find for me--I love character-driven mysteries, and hers are very engaging.

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