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 S√Ľret√© du Qu√©bec. 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.

Traumatic Memories: David Young’s Stasi Child

stasichildDavid Young’s new series set in 1970s East Germany just about qualifies as historical crime fiction, but the history is so recent that the scars are still prone to reopen and suppurate. Personally, I found this book quite an emotionally draining experience (some things were just too familiar, even though I did not grow up in East Germany but in another Soviet satellite state). But for those who have a sufficient distance from the events, it is a thrilling and entertaining tale. The background feels quite fresh, as it’s not been used too much in crime fiction to date.

Young takes a number of historical facts, such as political prisoners making IKEA furniture in East Germany, repatriation agreements for under-16s between the West and the East, the Stasi turning family members against each other, youth work camps for ‘difficult’ children and escape tunnels to the West, and spins an enthralling and claustrophobic tale out of them. If anything, one might reproach the author with trying to tackle too many of the grim GDR realities at once, throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at this story, a common enough failing with debut authors. He does, however, blend the multiple storylines quite skilfully, and there is no arguing with the sinister atmosphere of paranoia and fear which he creates.

Karin¬†M√ľller is everywoman – as her name (a very common German name) indicates – a police officer trying to survive in a tough world. She gets roped into a strange investigation into the death of a young girl in the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It appears the youngster was trying to escape from the West to the East – almost unheard of at the time. So why is the Stasi getting involved, are they trying to cover up something? Karin feels increasingly uncomfortable about J√§ger – her Stasi superior – and his interference in the investigation, nor is she sure she can trust her partner Tilsner, despite the strong physical attraction she feels for him. Finally, she feels guilty about her husband Gottfried, a good man, a teacher with Western sympathies, from whom she feels more and more estranged. The author does an excellent job of conveying that feeling of helplessness, of not being able to trust anyone, which was a permanent fixture of Communist dictatorships.

Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

There are some elements which stretch belief here (the tricks which Karin and her team have to resort to at times, the lengths to which she is prepared to go for the sake of the investigation), but overall it’s a cracking little thriller, with a fantastic cover to boot. I’ve also heard it’s been recently optioned for a TV series – and it does sound perfect for that, so here’s hoping it gets made.