For readers who love a mystery but cannot stomach the relentless violence of much modern crime fiction, a kinder, gentler alternative exists: the cozy. Cozies are mysteries that contain little or no sex, violence or dirty talk, and that often take place in villages populated by eccentric folk. Essentially, they attempt to recapture the magic of Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976).
“A Trick of the Light” is the first of Louise Penny’s seven novels that I’ve read, and at first glance, I took it for a cozy, in that sex and violence are minimal (although profanity is surprisingly frequent). The fact that Penny’s recent novels have won the annual Agatha Award an unprecedented four times in a row also seems to place her work squarely in the cozy/Christie category.
There’s one big difference, however. Christie’s prose was brisk and workmanlike; her genius lay in her endlessly inventive plots. Penny, by contrast, is a writer blessed with considerable sophistication and literary skill — far more than Christie had or probably wanted. By the time I finished “A Trick of the Light,” I had come to think of it as a fascinating hybrid: a cozy that at best reads like good literary fiction.
The nominal star of Penny’s series is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Montreal’s admirable but dull head of homicide investigations. The real star of the series is the village of Three Pines, near Montreal, which is rather like Brigadoon if Brigadoon had a nonstop crime wave. Its residents, who reappear throughout the series, include Olivier and Gabri, gay partners who operate the local bistro; Clara and Peter Morrow, mismatched husband-and-wife artists; and Ruth Zardo, a foul-tempered, foulmouthed old poet.
Penny writes very well of the village and of flowers, food, furniture, painting, gardens and landscapes; hers is a fluid, graceful prose. She’s also skilled at presenting the complex relationships her characters become enmeshed in. At her novel’s center we have Clara, who, as she nears age 50, has a one-woman show at Montreal’s leading museum. Following the show, she’s honored at a large party in the village, after which the body of a woman is found in her garden. The dead woman is a childhood friend of Clara’s who became an enemy.
It is in the characterization of Clara that “A Trick of the Light” most obviously embraces coziness. She’s an insecure woman who’s having a panic attack as the novel opens. She sees herself as cursed with “boxing glove hands” and “frizzy hair” and as being far less attractive and talented than her husband. But readers soon realize what a fine person she is, and after her show she is hailed as a genius in New York Times and London Times reviews.
Alas, she finds that her husband is jealous of her sudden success, and she realizes that she must rid herself of him to be her own woman. In short, in just a few weeks, the ugly duckling is reborn as a liberated and lionized swan. All this is exceedingly unlikely to occur in the real world, but it’s a tasty fantasy.
Meanwhile, there’s a murder to be solved. The dead woman had been an artist (she, too, is improbably hailed as a genius) and art critic for Canadian newspapers. In the latter role, she made many enemies, who might have chosen to break her neck in Clara’s shadowy garden.
Penny writes eloquently about the glories of art and scathingly about greed, pettiness and jealousy among artists. It even becomes likely that the dead woman was killed as revenge for a particularly nasty review she had written many years earlier. (In my experience as an author, there are many harsh reviews that are neither forgotten nor forgiven and for which the recipient considers a carefully planned homicide to be a proper response.)
If you’re looking for a well-written mystery that highlights an amusing village, takes a nasty look at the art world and doesn’t contain any cannibalism, beheadings or sexual perversion, you could do a lot worse than Penny’s “A Trick of the Light.”
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for The Post.
A TRICK OF THE LIGHT
By Louise Penny
Minotaur. 339 pp. $25.99