Monday, December 17, 2018

53. Bury your Dead by Louise Penny

I got this one out from the local public library after a recommendation from somebody.  I am generally leery of contemporary mysteries, but this one is set in Quebec and the author lives outside of Montreal, so I had to give it a try.  For some reason, I had it in my list that this was the first book in the Inspector Gamache series and I specifically was looking for it.  As I was reading it, it seemed less and less like a first book (or one with a ton of backstory that takes place late in the protagonist's career).  It turns out that it is like the 5th book in the series.  I am hoping it is representative of it as a whole, though I wished I could have started with something where the plot was not quite so ambitious and wide in scope (this one has a plotline involving a major terrorist attack).

Anyhow, an interesting read.  It is very well put together and the intrigue is imaginative and well-plotted.  Perhaps almost too well-plotted.  You actually get 3 mysteries in one here.  Something terrible happened in the past when one of Inspector Gamache's men gets kidnapped and we follow that flashback storyline.  At the same time (as the reader), Gamache who is recovering in Quebec City from his wounds mental and physical is investigating the murder of a Samuel de Champlain fanatic found murdered in the basement of the English Literature and Historical society.  Finally, Gamache's lieutenant, inspector Beauvoir, who is also recovering is sent back to the small town of Three Pines to re-investigate the murder of a hermit who had a cabin full of priceless antiques (they had caught and convicted a murderer, but Gamache has doubts).  So, yeah, a lot going on.  Honestly, I would have been perfectly fine with only one of these storylines.  I'm not sure why so much has to be packed into this book.  Is that the appetite of today's mystery reader?  Especially considering that in the flashback storyline, the kidnapping is actually part of a plot line that would fit better in a Tom Clancy novel.  Despite the quantity, they were all engaging and well-crafted storylines, though at times the suspense is a little arbitrary (like just tell us what happened).

The physical portrayal of Quebec City was great and reinforced my desire to do a family trip there.  It's a well-written page-turner and I can see why her books have been so succesful.  I would definitely pick up another one if I stumbled across it, though will probably not seek them out.  Not a criticism of the books, but just not quite in my wheelhouse.  I would like to see how she handles Montreal itself one day.

I do have one concern, though.  This is a delicate topic and I may come off sounding extremely nerdy or snobby here.  I had thought that Louise Penny was an anglophone Quebecer, but as I read this book I became less and less sure of it. There is a lot in here about Quebec and french that feels off.  Many of the protagonist's names are french from France, not Quebec.  I have never met anybody named Armand or Émile. Likewise, the food (which is often detailed) seems way more french than Quebecois.  Finally, there is an anglophone character whose french is really bad, but the way it is portrayed is that she says things that francophones understand in a completely ridiculous way like "have a nice strawberry".  It is supposed to be a humourous point about the character, but it just makes no sense.  If somebody speaks bad french, they will simply be not understood.  Nobody is going to mistake have a good night with have a good strawberry ("bonne nuit" vs. "bonne fraise"?!).  They sound completely different. This happens a bunch of times and I'm too lazy to find the actual text.

Going further, the political views of the francophone Quebecers rang oddly false to me.  They seemed to be stuck in the past and coming from an anglophone perspective.  The question of Quebec sovereignty in character's inner thoughts and dialogue is treated as this heavy thing, with this suggestion of menace around the more extreme separatists.  I find that to be a real anglophone view of the situation, informed by our own anxieties and the shit media coverage and propaganda outside of Quebec.  Even in 2010, sovereignty is not a major issue for most Quebecers.  The language is, the culture is and especially anxieties around immigration, but sovereignty for most people is kind of in the past now.  It's also not some heavy big thing.  People will talk about it.  It's not treated like some delicate subject you have to tiptoe around.

After I read the book, I read up on Louise Penny.  She's from Ontario but worked and lived in Quebec for decades.  She currently lives in the Eastern Townships.  It's not clear how good her french is nor how integrated she is in to francophone society here.  She clearly knows her stuff and does a lot of research for her books.  It could be she sees a side of Quebec that I don't see (I am pretty limited to Montreal most of the time), but honestly at times this book felt like cultural tourism.  I don't know if that is a good or bad thing and I suspect that her translated books do well and are well received here (will do a bit of research on that myself).  Quebecers love mysteries, homegrown ones especially.  I was just hoping for someone who really knew Quebec from the heart but wrote in english for my lazy ass and I am not sure I got that here, at least on the portrayal of francophone Quebec.


Mark Miller said...

The character Winnie's bad french saying "The night is a strawberry" comes from her trying to say "The night is cool" but she mistakes the feminine form for the adjective frais as fraise, Instead of saying La nuit est fraiche, she says La nuit est fraise.


OlmanFeelyus said...

Ah, thanks for the clarification. It still doesn't ring true for me, as an expert in bad french. :)

Anonymous said...

As a Scotsman living in Saskatchewan, my expertise in bad French is unparalelled. I got this reference right away, since I made precisely this error in high school.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Another vote for Penny being legit with her french! Okay, I am convinced and will try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Thanks for the comment.