Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the Sûreté du Québec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.  If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force! It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.