A Trick of the Light
One of the blessings or perhaps curses of Netflix is that you can sit down any time and fill in the episodes of The Sopranos or Inspector Lewis that your busy schedule forced you to miss. You can even start at the beginning and go through to the end. Which is just fine if there aren’t too many episodes.
If you are addicted to police procedurals you might want to take a look at Midsomer Murders. Then again, you might not. There are 59 episodes of this show, all taking place in a quiet corner of rural England more or less at the present, and in all but the last few you can watch Inspector Barnaby solve a murder or two, occasionally three. Obviously, you have to like police procedurals, but there’s a bigger problem and it has to do with the willing suspension of disbelief. Each of the four or five little villages is idyllic, from Midsomer Norton to Badger’s Drift, and each houses a murderer, or two, or seven or eight. Because you see, there might be a population of about five thousand people in all the villages combined, but there have been approximately 130 murders in the course of the series. That makes for about 2.5% of the population gunned down or poisoned or stabbed or drowned. Equivalent to perhaps 250,000 murdered in New York or London, or 1200 in sleepy Fairfield, Connecticut. And an additional 1% incarcerated for the crimes (that would be 100,000 in New York City, by the way). Oh, by the way, all these murders are the middle and upper classes preying up one another. No gang warfare and drug culture here. This is England, after all.
Every time you watch the next episode, you have to forget the ones that have preceded it. Here we are in the picture-perfect English countryside and, oh, can you believe it, violence and mayhem strike in the unlikeliest of places! Inspector Barnaby plays it straight, though God knows he ought to take his wife and family and move to the inner city where it’s quieter, and we take our cue from him. Be a realist and there’s nothing left to enjoy.
It’s not far at all, at least in the imagination, from Midsomer Worthy to Three Pines where Louise Penny has set her seventh novel, A Trick of the Light. About 3,500 miles separate them if you are inclined to be pedantic, since Barnaby operates in the midst of England and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surêté de Québec travels with wearying frequency from Montréal to the little village close to the border of Vermont. Three Pines isn’t on any map, a dream of a village which just may be a village in a dream. Three Pines is full of wonderful characters, made more memorable by Penny’s transcendent writing and extraordinary store of wisdom. Who could resist the chemistry between Gamache and his assistant Jean-Guy Beauvoir, or not be delighted by the octogenarian Ruth Nardo, at once foul-mouthed and nasty, the head of the villages volunteer fire-fighters and one of Canada’s leading poets? Then there’s Myrna who runs a bookstore in the village, and Olivier and Gabri, the gay owners of the local bistro. Does it matter that the whole village seems constantly to be eating at the bistro, or that Myrna’s bookshop ought by rights to have gone bankrupt almost before opening? Surely not, because the reader wants too much for the place and the people to be real that “realism” is swept aside.
What makes Louise Penny’s stories so remarkable is, in fact, the combination of realism and fantasy. The place could never exist, that is pretty clear. But inside this almost self-indulgently magical fairyland of a place the human emotions and fears are as strong and true as any you would find even in your own darkest moments. The stories stand alone of course, but it would be a mistake not to start with the first and work your way to the latest. Otherwise you would miss the complexity of the relationship between the two detectives, loving and yet damaged by the Chief Inspector’s costly error of judgment. And where have you read detective fiction in which the Sherlock Holmes character is seeking forgiveness for having made a mistake and incarcerated for murder one of the most beloved village residents?
Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple started it all. Only here, it seems, could Louise Penny have got her insight that murders are not so much about incident as they are about emotions. She has made of this thought something the elderly spinster of St. Mary Mead did not contemplate. Each novel in the Three Pines series adds another layer of emotional complexity in the relationships between people we have come to love, so that their sadnesses and tragedies, as well as their simple joys, become our own. At the end of each, the murder is solved and the perpetrator carted off. But we’re more interested in how our friends—and they really seem to be so—will move beyond where we leave them until next time, interrupted in the midst of life. This is not the usual stuff of detective fiction. I will probably stay addicted to Midsomer Murders, but I’d kill for 59 books by Louise Penny.