As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a body in the garden leads me down a winding path.
Penny, Louise. A Trick of the Light. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2011. 352p. ISBN 9780312655457. $25.99.
Penny’s seventh Gamache novel opens with a celebration of art. Clara Morrow’s hard-won solo show at the Musée in Montreal is followed by a party at her home in Three Pines with friends and a who’s who of the art world. The show is a smashing international success, but Clara’s night of triumph is followed by a cold morning when she discovers a body in her garden. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team return to the small village of Three Pines to find a woman in a red dress face down in newly tilled soil, her neck broken. Gamache and even more notably his number two, Jean Guy Beauvoir, are still recovering from the events of a past investigation, but both press on to uncover long-hidden secrets and resentments. Through restrained plotting, this puzzle box of a novel unfolds via a series of small revelations, deftly connected and finely drawn. As carefully as she builds plot, Penny also builds character: Gamache, Beauvoir, and some old favorites from Three Pines continue to deepen in complexity. Along with her lovely subtle and spare writing, Penny delivers a sharp right hook of humor, which she uses to leaven the tone as her novel grows bleak. Smart and cultured, with finely drawn and atmospheric settings, Penny’s novels are gems of storytelling. Note: If you are hooking a reader who has not yet met Penny’s fabulous cast, start them with Still Life, the first in the series, but if you are working with a reader who found Penny through A Trick of the Light, rest easy, as not too much will have been revealed in advance.
Dexter, Colin. Last Bus to Woodstock. Ivy Bks. 1996. 288p. ISBN 9780804114905. pap. $7.99.
Set in and around Oxford, England, Dexter’s 13 novels feature Inspector Morse, a shrewd, smart, curmudgeonly detective, who, like Gamache, often solves the crime through flashes of brilliant intuition. Oxford might be more urban than Three Pines, but it is its own insular village, as Morse well knows through navigations of his department’s politics and those of the town and gown of Oxford’s dreaming spires. Dexter writes puzzle novels that are as intelligent as Penny’s, filled with the same attention to detail, cultural depth, and atmosphere. While his procedurals are less cozy than hers and lack the uplift of connections (Morse is not connected to family and friends, but he is connected to his number two, Lewis), the series makes nice next reading for its similar focus on character development, police work, and stylish, sharp writing. While Gamache might not find Morse as polite as he would like, it’s a safe bet that both men would admire the detecting skills of one another. Start readers with the first of the series, in which a young girl is murdered after hitchhiking and the finger of justice begins to point toward an Oxford don.
Todd, Charles. A Test of Wills. Morrow: HarperCollins. 2011. 320p. ISBN 9780062091611. pap. $14.99.
Set in the years after the Great War, Todd’s series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge should please Penny fans, as Rutledge is a grand antecedent to Gamache. Smart, tenacious, and reflective, Rutledge is an officer of Scotland Yard who often travels to the small villages of England on his investigations. Todd matches Penny in the ability to create place out of a few select details and has the same skilled hand at description. The two writers are equally matched when it comes to creating complex characters that offer readers more to sink their teeth into than simply a mystery solved. Rutledge is haunted by the voice of Hamish MacLeod, a solider he executed during the war for refusing to obey an order. It is a secret his keeps locked away as admitting to suffering from shell shock would not advance his career-even if the voice of Hamish does act as a Greek chorus during his cases. Penny fans should appreciate the way Todd’s clever puzzles focus on both story and character and share common village mystery antecedents. Add a similar languid pace, plus smart and adroit construction, and you have a pairing that should keep readers happy for a long time. Start readers with this first in the 14-book series (The Confession comes out in January 2012) in which Rutledge must question a fellow soldier with deep wounds of his own.
Hart, Erin. Haunted Ground. Scribner. 2005. 352p. ISBN 9780743272100. pap. $15.
Hart planted her flag on the literary mystery map in 2003 with this spectacular debut, a success she matched a year later with Lake of Sorrows. Fans had to wait until 2010 for False Mermaid, the third novel in the smart and stylish series, but were thrilled to be once again in the company of the Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and the American pathologist Nora Gavin as they uncover connections between ancient and modern mysteries. While Hart does not write procedurals, she does write stories of complex characters involved in intricate puzzles that should appeal to Penny fans. Like Penny, Hart focuses on the relationships of her characters and the locations of her stories-both richly evoked in language that is subtle and penetrating. While Hart’s stories unfold a bit more briskly than Penny’s, readers who enjoy Penny’s atmospheric and reflective stories should appreciate Hart’s stress on place and emotion as well as her richly detailed historical backgrounds. Start readers with the first of the three books in which Nora and Gavin meet when the head of a woman is found in an Irish bog.
James, P.D. Cover Her Face. Touchstone. 2011. 256p. ISBN 9780743219570. pap. $15.
The 14 books published to date in James’s beloved series feature Adam Dalgliesh of the London Metropolitan Police Department. Dalgliesh is fiercely intelligent, and while a bit more haunted and reserved than Gamache (he has lost his wife and son), the two detectives are both reflective and independent thinkers. Like Penny, James reinterprets classic mystery motifs in her procedurals and includes a focus on the wider world than just the puzzle. The two authors also stress the importance of language, deftly created settings, cultural frames, and intricate plots. As the books progress readers learn more about Dalgliesh, so it makes sense to start at the beginning of the series with this entry about a troublesome maid who, when she dares dream above her station, gets a permanent comeuppance. Readers willing to sample further into the series might experience more of the pleasures of James by starting with book six or seven by which time James is writing at the height of her powers.
Grimes, Martha. The Man with a Load of Mischief. Onyx. 2003. 288p. ISBN 9780451410818. pap. $7.99.
The early books by Grimes share a number of similar features with Penny’s novels: they focus on the connections among a group of characters, they are as funny, and they are clever police procedurals centered on a puzzle. Grimes also shares Penny’s ability to create complex characters, vivid landscapes, and a witty, smart feel. Grimes even shares with Penny the penchant for having animals briefly appear as sentient characters (in A Trick of the Light, it is a horse; with Grimes, it is notably cats and dogs). The main characters-Richard Jury (quiet, brilliant, and infinitely appealing) and Melrose Plant (the charming local aristocrat looking to unload his title)-meet when Plant’s village of Long Piddleton is beset by murder. Grimes carefully sets up the scene, introduces a number of repeating characters, and leads readers through a classic procedural, aided by an unusual group of helpers. As the series develops, some of the small-town charm slips away, Jury grows increasingly brooding, and the frame details change, but the early books offer a Jury who is much like a lonely Gamache and should give Penny fans some charming cozy company. Audio fans, take note: if still available in your library, Tim Curry’s narration of several books in the series is not to be missed.
Christie, Agatha. A Murder Is Announced. AudioGO. 2011. ISBN 9780563510901. $16.95.
The queen of the puzzle plot, the small village, and the red herring, Christie is a great next author for an entire range of mystery readers, including fans of Penny (who will particularly recognize the seeds of Christie in the drawing room conclusion of A Trick of the Light). While the stories are likely familiar to many readers, as are the TV adaptations, try Christie in audio for new insights and to understand why she remains the pattern for many contemporary “old-fashioned” mysteries. In this full cast production, British actors embody the spirit of the radio play and create a masterful audio performance filled with sharply delivered lines and over-the-top theatrics. With perfect pacing, they act out the strange happenings when an ad for murder is posted in the local paper. Play it one stormy night, preferably in your living room with a fire roaring.
Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. AudioGo. 2009. ISBN 9781602836440. $24.95.
With their humor, clever constructions, and attention to detail, Tey’s handful of Inspector Alan Grant mysteries make for excellent next reading for Penny fans. Meticulous and careful, Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard trusts his gut. But he is confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg and takes distraction where he can find it. Prompted by a portrait brought to him by a friend, he applies his fine detective skills to a historic case: the death of the two young princes in the tower. History may hold that the vile murders were the work of Richard III, but Grant thinks otherwise and sets off to prove his case from his bed. The result is a brilliant mystery, compelling, intriguing, and gracefully told. This brilliance is matched by narrator Derek Jacobi’s performance. Jacobi jumps feet first into the reading, creating a perfectly paced edition, rich in fully conceived character voices, and read with such a beguiling joy that listening is a pure pleasure.
Leon, Donna. Blood from Stone. AudioGo. 2005. ISBN 9781572704688. $31.95.
Like Gamache, Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venetian police department is smart, intuitive, humane, and patient. Like Penny, Leon is deft and subtle and crafts insightful and intricate mysteries. While the plots may be a bit more political than Penny’s (but with the events surrounding the video in A Trick of Light that might be changing), the focus on landscape, family, colleagues, and community carries similar importance. Add in parallel touches of humor and a sophisticated style, and Penny fans could well find a new series to love. It is likely best to read Leon in order (the first is Death at La Fenice), but for listeners who do not mind jumping in mid-stream, Bloodf from a Stone is one of her best and translates to audio brilliantly. David Colacci handles the various languages with ease and creates for Brunetti a perfectly pitched, and paced, voice. He creates the other characters equally well through changes in speech pattern and rhythm. Colacci has a real feel for Leon and matches her subtly with a nuanced reading that is a delight.
The Complete Inspector Lewis. 1800 min. PBS. 2011. $129.99.
Lewis is Morse’s aide in Colin Dexter’s novels, but so popular were the PBS Mystery episodes featuring Morse and Lewis that a spin-off series was later created. In the new series, Lewis (Kevin Whately) is the lead detective and ably assisted (and often nudged) by his second, Detective Sergeant Hathaway (Laurence Fox), a Cambridge-educated man who once trained for the priesthood. Lewis is a bit too everyman to resemble Gamache, but Hathaway is a pretty good pairing for Jean Guy Beauvoir and is not too far behind Gamache either. The series has a similar depth to Penny’s, shares interesting frame details, and features the same procedural approach. Additionally, the producers, who make great use of the lovely visual setting in Oxford, share the stress Penny puts on setting. Penny’s books would make great PBS viewing, but until that day comes Lewis and Hathaway offer similar pleasures. Those who prefer their mysteries in film form should also be pointed to the short run of Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, the original Morse episodes, as well as the many Christie adaptations (all aired on PBS).