Read A Better Man, Louise Penny’s latest book over the weekend. I finished it late on Sunday night and have moved on to a new novel. Yet Penny’s story continues to haunt me. Why?
I asked myself that question as a writer, not a reader. What is it about her writing that gets inside my head and refuses to leave? Can I learn from her to make my own work more compelling? I found a number of answers.
First: Compelling Characters.
Everyone who has ever taken a class or a workshop in writing fiction knows compelling characters are key to a successful novel.
Penny’s characters are all well-rounded, complex, interesting and tug at the heart strings. I don’t want to go into a long review here, so I’ll concentrate on the lead character, Armand Gamache, a senior officer in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is an emminently appealing character, kind, honest, brave, loving, loyal—and deeply wounded. As a police officer he has seen and done things that cut to his soul. He has been betrayed by colleagues, attacked by politicians, shot by criminals. Penny creates scenes of evil and hate and greed and she puts Gamache in the middle of it. She tries his principles, tempts him with an easy way out. She hurts him deeply, yet he remains true to himself and what he stands for. As a reader, I’ve come to trust him, depend on him to get me through the terrible events of the novel and show me that justice will prevail, that good men can, if not win, at least survive.
The wounds, I believe, are what makes Gamache so relatable. I’m too soft when it comes to hurting my characters. I like them and I don’t want to make them suffer, but the suffering is where real character is displayed. It is where readers identify with characters and ache for them and cheer for them and read on until they are safely home again.
Second: Appealing setting
The village of Three Pines plays a large role in the stories. It’s a bit like an English village that you might find in a Miss Marple mystery, but it is deeply Quebecois. The bistro, the village green, the duck pond, the old church, the book store, and B&B – these are all Quebec, with harsh winters, hot summers, mosquitos, and no WiFi. All the instant communication a modern culture takes for granted, must slow down in Three Pines. This lack of speed in the village is a wonderful plot device, stretching out the suspense. It takes time to get reports, it takes time to run down leads, it takes time to receive orders. If you’re really in a hurry you can drive a few miles out of town to where there is cell phone reception, but that takes time too. Everything takes time and we settle into Three Pines like a comfortable old armchair. We probably want a latte and a wood-burning fireplace, and good friends and good conversation. We want to luxuriate in the slowed down time of this village.
Third: Beautiful writing
Penny’s prose is almost poetic. She is obviously well-read and educated, referencing art, literature and politics, yet her language is not beyond the understanding of most readers. She doesn’t dazzle with long words and convoluted sentences, but there is a poet living in Three Pines and her phrases creep into the narrative and make it sparkle. There is also a foul-mouthed duck who roots us firmly in the modern culture. In other words, Penny has a recognizable and enthralling voice.
Fourth: Dynamic Plot
Since these are murder mysteries one would expect lots of plot turns, but Penny is a master at throwing in an unexpected twist. Even when you think a character has won, he loses. Even when Gamache seems defeated, he has an ace up his sleeve. I am always in awe of people who can plot out even a simple mystery, With Penny’s serpentine plot twists, I can only marvel.
This is only a brief analysis of what I think makes her books so remarkable and none of it is new. All of these points are developed in how-to-write books, workshops and university courses, but Louise Penny has provided us with a masterful example.
Even if you write lighter stories, where romance and humour are more important than danger and crime, I recommend any of Ms Penny’s books as a great learning tool — and a wonderful way to spend a weekend.
Anyone else a fan? Who’s your favourite writer. Does he/she get inside your head and refuse to leave?