Below are a few thoughts about books I have read recently. Mysteries are my guilty pleasure. Once I have started one, I find it hard to put it down. And if I’m reading a series that I like, I’m barely social until I finish every book in the list. So here are some thoughts about recent mysteries I have read followed by short reviews of a couple on non-fiction works.
Louise Penny, The Three Pines Mysteries
In order of their publication dates, the books are:
Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, and The Nature of the Beast.
Although it is possible to read this series of out order, I recommend that you don’t. While Louise Penny has written each book as a stand alone work, reading them out of order would short circuit the rich character development, plot complexity , and cultural nuances contained in the series.
Most of the action in the series takes place in the village of Three Pines, a bucolic village only one hour from Montreal. Notwithstanding its proximity to the city, the village is almost inaccessible to modern communications due to its location in a deep valley. And oddly enough, the village fails to appear on any version of recent maps. Nonetheless, it is a charming setting in rural Quebec populated with a variety of congenial residents. The lead character is Inspector Armand Gamache, Chief Homicide Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec, which is headquartered in Montreal. As it turns out, Gamache’s cases frequently take him to Three Pines where a number of the colorful residents figure prominently in the plot of each book.
Although there are too many characters to survey here, I should at least mention Myrna Landers, a former psychotherapist who owns a bookstore in Three Pines. Then there is Ruth Zardo, an aging poet who drinks far too much Scotch, swears too much, borrows freely from the bookstore without paying, and whose primary companion is Rosa the duck. Clara Morrow is a portrait painter with a gift for revealing unanticipated inner aspects of her subjects. Clara’s husband, Peter, is also a painter whose abstract works have led to a successful artistic career. And much of the action in the village takes place at the local bistro, owned and operated by the gay couple, Olivier Brulé and Gabri Dubeau.
Finishing this series was, for me, a sad event. I lived with the characters for such a long time that I now feel as if I know each of them personally. I certainly know them better than my next door neighbors. For this reason I have decided to move to Three Pines as soon as a map is published showing its location. The people who live in that small community are congenial, non-judgmental, and interesting. Except for the occasional murder I’m sure that my life there will be quite to my liking.
Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, The Murder at theVicarage, The Body in the Library
Having read many mysteries over the past few years, I thought it appropriate that I read at least a few works by Agatha Christie, the grand dame of the genre. I also thought it important to start at the beginning. Thus, the first two books listed are the first two novels featuring Inspector Hercule Poirot and the second two are the first two novels featuring Miss Marple.
Cristie is the master of the “cozy” mystery format. A murder is committed, a cast of suspects is presented, and the sleuth then reveals the murderer based on clues and clever logic. In the four Christie novels I have read, the reader, just as the sleuth, should know the identity of the murderer before the end of the book. All the information necessary to solve the crime has already been presented. I was, however, without a clue as to the identity of the culprit by the end of each novel.
Notwithstanding Christie’s expertise at creating such clever scenarios as those presented in her books, they are not to my taste. For me, the characters are forgettable, possibly because there are so many of them. Character development is not one of Christie’s strong points. All one needs to know about any particular character are their whereabouts at the time of the murder, their relation, if any, to the victim, and their potential, but usually superficial, motives for committing the crime. Thus, we are left with a puzzle about a cast of thinly framed characters about whom we know very little and a victim about whom we know almost nothing.
David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
David Christian is a noted historian who has become a major leader in the “big history” movement. Big history takes a bird-eye view, focusing on the vast sweep of events rather than the more micro perspective of history to which we are accustomed. It is an approach to history in which the French Revolution gets barely a mention, but which dwells at length on the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society. In this work, Christian presents an analysis of history from the big bang to the present day and beyond. This task goes far afield of the ordinary scope of historical analysis as it engages the disciplines of physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, and biology.
Undertaking the reading of this work is a mammoth project. It is long and the prose is sometimes dense, not to mention that the subject matter can be unfamiliar for one schooled in the humanities. I read this volume as part of a reading group in which different members would be assigned to lead the discussion in each session. It fell to me for my first assignment to lead the discussion on the first three hundred thousand years of the universe. At a later point in the project, a fellow reader asked when we might finish the work. Another member of the group responded, “Never. Reading this book will be our life’s work.”
If there is a general theme in Christian’s opus as it reviews the expanse of 13.8 billion years, it is the movement from simplicity to complexity, in seeming contradiction to Newton’s second law of thermodynamics; that is, to the law of entropy. To the extent that entropy should apply to the universe as a whole, it is postponed well into the future, long after a time when we, as a species, will be here to observe it.
Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land
Tony Judt, recently deceased, was a noted historian of European and North Atlantic affairs. In this, his last published work, he laments the current cultural and political divide in American society, claiming that is more than dysfunctional. It is also destroying our sense of nationhood. And, because of increasing inequality and declining social mobility, our democracy, itself, is in danger of becoming a myth that will eventually become only a memory.
Judt’s solution is a call for social democracy in the U. S. and a revitalization of its ideals. I largely agree with Judt’s analysis, and I try to be cautiously optimistic about the realization of social democracy in today’s political environment.