Louise Penny’s Crime Fantasies


Louise Penny is the best bad writer I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Glass Houses, the most recent installment of the Inspector Gamache mysteries. It’s by no means the best in the series but it helped me think about what’s particular to Penny’s work.

If you have any interest in crime fiction, you probably know about Louise Penny. (If you haven’t read her and you think you might, beware that there are a few, though not too many, spoilers in what follows.) She is famous for her lead detective, Armand Gamache: impossibly decent, intellectual, large-spirited, and psychologically well adjusted. (He isn’t tormented or self-destructive or alcoholic or divorced, which makes him a welcome change from many fictional detectives.) But for me, anyway, more appealing than her protagonist is her setting, specifically her enticing depiction of the Eastern Townships between Montreal and the US border, especially her fictional village of Three Pines. When I say fictional, I don’t just mean that Penny’s made Three Pines up. I mean that even in the world of the novels it doesn’t really exist—it’s not on any maps, no one’s ever heard of it, people only stumble upon it (and once they do they never want to leave), it’s out of cell, GPS, and internet range. In short, it’s more a fantasy than an actual place.

Specifically, it’s a fantasy about the healing power of community. Those who come to Three Pines are usually hurting, and the place nurses them back to health. It’s a place where people work only at the things they love, a place where they take walks, eat plenty of delicious food, drink plenty of delicious drinks, and somehow seem to have all the money they need.

But Penny has the good sense to emphasize the sting hidden in every paradise. For one thing, the murder rate is alarmingly high (hazard of any small-town crime setting: think Murder, She Wrote’s Cabot Cove). More interestingly, the healing or peace promised by Three Pines doesn’t come easily, maybe doesn’t come at all. People have their demons, most of which are convincingly ordinary (insecurity, jealousy, anxiety). Penny is excellent at showing how such seemingly minor problems can lead to terrible outcomes.


I’ve been following Penny from the beginning, thanks to my wife, who picked up her first novel, Still Life, from the (now apparently shuttered) bookstore in the Halifax airport over ten years ago, back when Penny only had a UK publisher. I’ve always been terribly shallow when it comes to book covers, and I didn’t think the book could be any good because it was so ugly. I’d have never picked it up on my own. (I’ve also never been much for Canadian crime fiction—have at me in the comments, tell me what’s good.) Fortunately, my wife is much more broad-minded than I am. She prodded me to read it, and I liked it quite a bit. In general, the first few novels were quite good. And I especially liked the idea that Penny was writing a quartet—one book for each season. That seemed to be the idea, initially. But then they became a phenomenon, and the series took off.

As the books went on, the things I didn’t like became harder to overlook. I gritted my teeth at the lame banter among the Gamaches and their friends (the gay couple Gabri and Olivier, owners of the village’s B & B and bistro, are particularly egregious examples: they’re supposed to be arch, but they just come across as tragic). I rolled my eyes at Penny’s weakness for puns and long-running jokes (there’s one with a pet duck that says “fuck fuck fuck”—the less said the better). And I even got tired of the luscious descriptions of food and drink, though no one can beat Penny when it comes to describing how lovely it is to escape Canadian weather for a cozy fire and a bowl of warm nuts.

Most of all I was bothered by the prose, which is workmanlike at the best of times. All writers have their tics: one of the Penny’s that’s particularly annoying is her fatal attraction for sentence fragments. (I don’t actually have any of her books to hand, so I can’t quote an example. But they are the kind of sentence fragments that are supposed to add suspense or emphasis, but which just end up being clunky.)

After the seventh book, A Trick of the Light, a particularly uninspired outing, I gave up on the series for several years. But earlier this year I picked up where I left off, largely because I started listening to audio books on my commute, and the library had recordings of the whole series. Listening instead of reading made a huge difference, especially because Ralph Cosham was a brilliant narrator. His Gamache was so compelling: even now, when I’m once again reading the books, I still hear his voice in my head. I suspect he eased over those sentence fragments (smoothing the chopped up pieces into complete sentences). For whatever reason, Penny’s prose bothered me much less in Cosham’s narration. It was a shock to learn that Cosham died suddenly after recording the tenth book, The Long Way Home. The new guy, , Robert Bathurst, had an unenviable task. But even allowing for the fact that the first voice you hear is probably the one you’ll like best, I don’t think Bathurst is a good fit for the series (hectic rather than ruminative, sage-like). After listening to the first of Bathurst’s readings recordings—it didn’t help that it was the preposterous The Nature of the Beast—I went back to paper.

And at this point, I’m so invested in the series that not even Penny’s mediocre prose can stop me. Especially because Penny does some things extremely well. Her books are varied in style: some are classic remote location-fixed set of character mysteries (what I think of as country house murder mysteries a la Poirot (The Beautiful Mystery, a personal favourite), some are spy stories (The Nature of the Beast), some are missing person investigations (The Long Way Home). Some focus on Gamache’s friends; some take him far afield.

With its commitment to the real, crime fiction is good at teaching us about places. And you can learn a fair bit about Quebec history and culture from Penny’s books. Admittedly, some volumes are more successful than others in this regard. Hits include the references to the painter Clarence Gagnon in The Long Way Home or the fictionalized Dionne Quintuplets in How the Light Gets In. Misses include a backstory involving the real-life engineer and ballistic missile developer Gerald Bull in The Nature of the Beast and the references to the Spanish tradition of the cobrador, a debt collector, in the new book, Glass Houses.




Like many long-running crime series, the relationships between the main characters have become more important than the crimes. That’s especially true of the one between Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Penny, herself a recovering alcoholic, does a particularly good job with the story of Jean-Guy’s addiction to prescription medication (played out over several volumes and frighteningly dark without ever being melodramatic).

But where Penny is at her best is in presenting epic struggles between good and evil. From the beginning of the series, Penny presents Gamache as struggling against corruption in the Sûreté du Quebec. Initially, this malevolence is a backdrop to the cases Gamache investigates, a kind of whispered possibility of something larger out there. But as the series goes on that battle takes center stage. The canvas of characters gets bigger; we get a better sense of the history that’s led to the current state of affairs. But Penny isn’t a sociological crime writer, the way someone like Jean-Claude Izzo or Leonardo Sciascia were. The more you read her works, the more you see that realism isn’t really her game. (The depiction of the fentanyl crisis in the new book is a case in point—it’s presented as an existential crisis, a canker on the soul of the province rather than a function of specific socio-political forces.) How the Light Gets In is probably the pinnacle of the series so far. It’s genuinely exciting. Suspenseful, yes, but more edge-of-your-seat-will-the-little-band-of-warriors-defeat-the-forces-of-evil than whodunit.

Penny, in other words, is a fantasy writer who happens to write about crime, more Tolkien than Christie. What makes Penny of her moment is the way she applies popular psychology to those epic battles of good versus evil. Penny’s books are full of what some readers might call psychobabble. I actually find Penny quite compelling on the importance of admitting our vulnerability, and devastating in her portrayal of how everyday emotions like insecurity can cause so much hurt to the ones we say we love. The juxtaposition of this language of therapy with a genre (fantasy) that I don’t associate with psychological acuity is weird and often clunky but a large part of what gives Penny her distinctive flavour and, I suspect, her staying power.

Most of the books after How the Light Gets In have detailed the aftermath of Gamache’s victory over the forces that sought to undermine the Sûreté. It’s nice to see Penny taking so long with this task: rot can’t be easily eradicated. I’ve no idea where this will all go. I thought Penny had written herself into a corner already a few times in the series, and she’s always got out of it. So I’ll stick around to see what she does next.

Does anyone know any other crime writers who write in this way? Who are really more like fantasy or science fiction writers? Is this a thing and I’d just never come across it before?





“An Irremediable Act”: Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal


Been busy with the beginning of school and a review essay that’s been bedeviling me, but wanted to pop in to say a few words about Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, which I devoured in a couple of sittings over the last few days. This is Ravatn’s first book in English, ably translated by Rosie Hedger. I gather it’s been adapted as a play, which I can absolutely see working, and now a movie’s coming, and that could be quite good too. The Bird Tribunal is one of those books with lots of shortish sections that make it so easy to say, Well, I’ll just read one more. And it’s so damn unsettling that you’ve no choice but to find out what’s going on.

Briefly: Allis Hagtorn is a former academic and TV personality (apparently these things are not mutually exclusive in Norway, though I have my doubts) who’s been disgraced (for reasons that are eventually revealed but not ultimately that interesting) and needs to run away from her old life. She answers an ad to be a live-in companion to a man in an isolated house somewhere in Norway. (Norwegians or better informed readers might be able to locate the setting more precisely: suffice it to say it’s on a fjord.) Her employer is Sigurd Bagge, a man taciturn to the point of pathology, brooding, mercurial, actually pretty frightening. He does some kind of unspecified work in a room he keeps locked. He needs Allis to cook, clean, and tend to the now-overgrown garden. His wife is away, has been for some time, and, it seems, isn’t coming back anytime soon.

So the book nods to the Gothic, intimates a Bluebeard situation, but it does so in the least Gothic prose imaginable. Instead it’s stripped down, spare, as if to support our stereotypes of Scandinavian minimalism. Others might not find this an interesting as I did–I’m a total sucker for stories about loners who retreat to the forests of the North, who live simple but comfortable lives, who don’t seem to need to work, except for whatever work they do with their hands around the house or in the garden, yet who still read and drink whisky and are quite cultured without making a big deal about it. Bits of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses are like this (I was captivated by that book all out of proportion to its actual merit, I suspect); some of Henning Mankell’s crime fiction features these similar scenarios.

What’s interesting in Ravatn’s book is the way she juxtaposes this scenario—which is usually about contemplation, where retreating from the world is a way to live better, or a reward for a life well lived—with the conventions of the psychological thriller, where retreat is about grief, trauma, or terror.

Bagge’s a puzzle, and so moody it’s hard to identify with him. But so is Allis. I found her immense need for Bagge’s self-regard irritating, but I appreciated that she does, too: she’s always checking and berating herself. I also liked the intimations that Allis is in fact really not that nice a person, or, maybe more accurately, that an unpleasant, unstable person is lurking inside her, threatening to come out but never quite doing so. Ravatn’s first-person narration effectively keeps us off-kilter.


The best thing about the book is that it teases you all the time, and just when you think you’ve figured it out, it changes course on you. (The push-pull between the characters, and the corresponding attraction-repulsion we feel for the characters is another way that slippery quality makes itself felt.) Even better: even when we do guess what’s going on, the book always has another trick to pull on us. It makes us feel confident as readers, lets us bask briefly in our cleverness, then pulls the rug out from under us again: a more interesting, less exploitative, and blessedly much shorter Gone Girl.

And if you like all things Scandinavian as much as I do you’ll also love the descriptions of weather and landscape. These are atmospheric but never overdone. As I write this review, I realize that what I liked best about the book is its modesty. (Very Scandinavian!) Less successful, to my mind, though I’d need to read it again to be sure, are the most self-consciously literary elements of the book: a dream that gives the book its title—and introduces the term skjemtarverk, “an irremediable act, a crime so serious that no fine or any other kind of reparation could atone for it”: this term is convincingly untranslated because even Allis, an expert on Norwegian history, has to look it up—and an extended reference to Norse myth. Maybe if I’d ever read the Eddas or had even the slightest clue what’s what there I’d think differently about these moment. For me, though, they were more distracting than winning.


Finally, a question for anyone who’s read the book. Take a look at the last sentence. Is that a dreadful dangling modifier, or has something really strange happened? (Has Allis become, perhaps figuratively but it seems literally, the bird of prey that’s been referenced in various ways throughout the book?) If it is a dangling modifier, is this horror already present in Ravatn’s text or has it been introduced in the translation?

Anyway, bottom line: not life changing but completely satisfying. If you’re looking for something nervy and unsettling that won’t make you feel used, The Bird Tribunal might be the end of summer read you need.

A Summer’s Worth of Crime Fiction

Summer isn’t over yet, of course, especially not in Arkansas. But my summer almost is. Administrative duties begin this week, and the first day of classes is only three weeks away. I’m sure I’ll dispose of a few more crime novels before the semester really starts to pinch, but for now here are a few thoughts about some I’ve read lately:

Gallows View—Peter Robinson (1987)

The first in the long-running Inspector Banks series, and a pretty good debut. For a while there I read the new installments of this series religiously. I’m a few behind now, not sure why, they’re always solid, often much better than that, and Banks is likeable enough, a kinder, less tormented Rebus. I don’t always need to know so much about the music he’s listening to, though. I’d never read the first five or six, though, and it’s interesting to compare the later installments to the first one. Robinson has become a better writer, but already here he shows a light touch in explaining the story of Banks’s move from London to Yorkshire. And his pacing is good, too. At 250 pages this book is the right length. I’ve bemoaned many times the bloat in crime fiction, with novels regularly topping 400 pages. In fact, Robinson himself has since succumbed to this tendency. Still, meeting Inspector Banks has reignited my interest in the series and I plan to read the next few.


The Strangler Vine—M . J. Carter (2014)

This first time novel by a historian begins what promises to be a very good series. Someone recommended this in the TLS Summer Reading series, and I’m glad I followed up on it. William Avery is a young soldier recently arrived in India in the 1830s. Languishing in Calcutta before joining his regiment, he is charged with accompanying Jeremiah Blake to find a well-known poet, the Walter Scott of Anglo-India, who has gone missing. Blake is a shadowy figure who is employed by the East India Company but lives in disrepute in the “native” part of the city, and in fact seems to have repudiated the Company altogether. Avery is naïve, a bit complacent and blustery, though a good sort. Blake is mercurial, expert in a dozen Eastern languages, an expert at tracking people who don’t want to be found. There’s an extended “meet cute” in which Blake is contemptuous of Avery and Avery horrified by Bake before each comes to appreciate the other, work as a team, etc. Avery is disabused of his faith in the Company; Blake regains some of his faith in the human race. So far, so conventional. Fortunately, Carter doesn’t push the Holmes/Watson comparison too hard. And her knowledge of the period is impressive. She describes the 1830s as a time when an earlier openness on the part of Company officials for India’s cultural traditions was hardening into something more dogmatic and oppressive, an incipient White Man’s Burden. The book drags a little at times, especially in the middle third, usually when Carter tries to burden her story with too much information. But the ending is genuinely moving and I look forward to the next installment, which, it seems, will be set somewhere quite different. (Already out in the UK—Book Depository order necessary? Hmm…)


Invisible City—Julia Dahl (2014)

I read this because it’s ostensibly about the Hasidic community in New York. But it’s actually about the newspaper business in the era of social media, which interests me a lot less. Dahl’s portrayal of an insular world in which wrongdoings are overlooked in a tacit understanding between community leaders and secular officials is fine as far as it goes. But Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker piece from last year explores the same topic much more probingly. It tells you something that a few later I can’t even remember the protagonist’s name, but she has a complicated back-story that allows her access to this relatively closed world. I didn’t find that story interesting enough to want to read the just-released follow-up.


Oblivion—Arnaldur Indridason (2014/2015 English translation Victoria Cribb)

Indridason is one of my absolute favourites and I always order his books from the UK since they come out a year earlier there. Some are stronger than others, of course, but this one is particularly good. A couple of years ago, Indridason concluded his series centered on his melancholy detective, Erlendur. But then he had the idea of writing about Erlendur’s early days. Last year’s Reykjavik Nights showed us Erlendur’s life as a traffic cop in the early 70s. In this follow-up, set a few years later, Erlendur has become a detective. He investigates two unrelated crimes, one recent and one from twenty years earlier. The resonances between them—they are linked only thematically, in relation to the American military presence in Iceland after the war—are intriguing but not hammered home. I’ve written before about my love of Iceland, so maybe this stuff interests me more than most people. But everyone ought to appreciate how almost insistently low-key these books are. Indridason is especially good at showing how awkward it can be to investigate crimes in a small country, where everybody almost knows everybody else.

Dissolution—C. J. Sansom (2003)

I’m not much of one for classical/medieval/Renaissance-era historical mysteries, but I quite liked this first installment of a series centered on Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s who increasingly finds himself torn over his master’s methods. At least I liked it until I read Jenny’s damning but compelling complaint about the implausibility of importing what are essentially 19th/20th century narrative protocols on to the Early Modern period. After that I liked it less. I might continue with the series anyway, though: the first one was definitely readable, and I enjoyed the counter-perspective on Cromwell, who I only know from Hilary Mantel. This book is fine, but it’s no Wolf Hall! Think Sansom is tired of hearing that yet?


The Red Moth—Sam Eastlake (2013)

Found this while in Canada and it seemed like the kind of thing that might be hard to get in the US, plus I’m a total sucker for WWII crime/espionage fiction. The inspector is a Finn who once worked for the Tsar and then was recalled from Siberian exile and put to work for Stalin. It’s all most implausible—Stalin is even a character, which doesn’t work out too well: I get that the point is that he’s not a frothing madman, but the picture of him as simply a malign functionary is fairly preposterous. A perfectly adequate vacation read, but I doubt I’ll be getting to the rest of the series anytime soon.


Ngaio Marsh—A Man Lay Dead (1934)

Marsh is one of the most famous Golden Age British crime writers along with Christie, Allingham, and the utterly glorious Tey. This is the first of her Inspector Alleyn series. It’s not perfect—Marsh can’t quite seem to figure out what she wants Alleyn to be like: is he nice, is he brooding, is he a bit callous?—but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, a classic country house murder with a hint of espionage. Read it—it absolutely stands the test of time. Looking forward to reading more of her work.

The Paying Guests–Sarah Waters (2014)

Just so you know, I reveal details of the plot here, so maybe bookmark this for later if you’re planning to read the book anytime soon.

Near the beginning of The Paying Guests, Frances Wray, the novel’s protagonist, looks in on her mother before going to bed. Mrs. Wray is sitting up in bed with “a book in her lap, a little railway thing called Puzzles and Conundrums: she had been trying out answers to an acrostic.” Near the end of the book, after dramatic events that Frances has kept secret, she feverishly speculates that her mother has guessed part of what has happened: “But how long before she worked out more? How long before the whole thing knitted itself together, like one of her wretched acrostics?”

These references are quite disparaging (“a little railway thing,” “wretched”), which is surprising, since, on the face of it at least, The Paying Guests is greatly interested in puzzles, mysteries, enigmas, and the like. In the great tradition of Golden Age British crime fiction, these mysteries concern unlikely protagonists. The Paying Guests’s Wrays live in a respectable London suburb. The Great War has been over for four years but its effects persist, not least in their household. Frances’s two brothers died in the fighting, and her father of ill health and grief soon after, leaving behind an unpleasant surprise: his investments turn out to be nearly worthless. Mother and daughter live on in the family home, a home that is too big for them, and too expensive. They have long since let the servants go; now the only solution to their financial straits is to let part of the house to strangers.

The novel begins with the arrival of the lodgers, the Barbers. (Mrs. Wray calls them “paying guests,” in keeping with her willingness to delude herself about anything she doesn’t want to face.) Leonard and Lilian are a young lower-middle class couple: he works as an insurance agent, she looks after their home and dreams of art school. They are the novel’s first puzzle: we share in the Wrays’ half-horrified, half-fascinated efforts to figure them out. Their manner of speaking, their gramophone, their rooms decorated in garish bohemianism: all set them apart from the fastidious, self-regarding, and yet increasingly threadbare world of their landladies (a term Frances uses to shock her mother).

Frances is a character we’ve come to know from some of Waters’s other books, especially The Night Watch (2006): the melancholic lesbian. Much of the great sadness of the Wray household arises from her thwarted hopes. We learn of her pacifist and suffragist activism during the war years (she was briefly arrested for throwing a shoe at an MP), and the woman, Christina, she met and fell in love with during that time. Later we learn of the crisis when Christina asks her to live with her and Frances bows to her sense of family obligation and breaks the relationship off. Frances cares for her mother and the household, she manages the finances as best she can. The book is a study in the exhaustion that comes from making small economies at a time when the daily business of keeping up a household was much more labour intensive than it is now. Waters describes the housework in detail: the fires to be made and kept up, the dusting and sweeping, the scrubbing by hand of the tiles, twice, first with vinegar to remove the dirt, then again with water to get a shine (which of course soon fades). Bathwater must be heated; the WC is across the yard. Even going to bed is “a round of chores—the gatherings, the turnings-down, the cushion-plumpings and the lockings-up.”

Frances, though a puzzle to her family (her mother in particular effects not to know about her daughter’s sexual orientation, holding out hope that she will find a man, and therefore a purpose to her life), isn’t one to herself. She knows the solution to her ennui (meaningful work, recognition, a room of her own, love, life) but can’t imagine where it might come from. To her surprise—but not to ours, at least not to those of us who have read Waters before—the solution turns out to be right in front of her, right under her roof in fact.

Frances and Lilian, who are often alone in the house together, slowly become friendly, their relationship characterized, on Frances’s part at least, by a muted gallantry that is part of the way she keeps all the important things about herself in check, hidden from everyone, even, almost, herself. Eventually Frances outs herself to Lilian, telling her about Christina. Lilian’s responds with wary reserve; Frances curses herself for saying too much; the intimacy dies as quickly as it had flared. But one night everything suddenly changes, Lilian’s reserve is revealed to have been fear of her feelings, and the two fall headlong into a charged relationship that consists, like the experience of being closeted, of hiding in plain sight: they steal moments together whenever they can, even under the very noses of Leonard and Mrs. Wray.

Then a lot of things happen at once. Lilian reveals she is pregnant and asks Frances to administer some pills she has purchased illegally from a shady chemist’s. The night she induces a miscarriage is the same night Leonard comes home early from a business meeting. He assumes the child is a sign that Lilian has been involved with another man. When he threatens Lilian, Frances tells him the truth. Leonard attacks her in a rage; a desperate Lilian beats him off with an ashtray, the first thing that comes to hand; the blow to the back of the head kills him.

The women subside in relief that quickly turns to shock. Lilian convinces Frances not to call a doctor or the police. Instead they manage to remove the body—Waters is great on the physicality of bodies, especially as revealed through sex, work, and death: the scene in which they desperately drag the corpse downstairs, out through the garden, and into the lane behind the house, before Frances’s mother comes home from her bridge night is a marvel of suspense and horror—and erase the signs of the struggle. Here the descriptions of cleaning that earlier seemed only to remind us of the emptiness of Frances’s life take on new urgency; so too do the earlier meditations on its futility (everything fades, everything decays: the porcelain collection always collects new dust, the freshly scrubbed floor always attracts someone’s muddy boots) take on new irony: some traces of the crime (bloodstains on the carpet, for example) simply can’t be expunged.

Murder, it seems, will out. The police become increasingly suspicious about the crime. It seems inevitable that the women will be found out. Their actions drive a wedge between them: they are physically separated, Lilian’s family takes her to stay with them, and emotionally separated, caught in a series of emotional upheavals ranging between fear of getting caught, elation at how everything seems to be breaking their way, paranoia that the authorities know more than they’re letting on, shame at having their comfortable lives mixed up in murder, and guilt at the idea that someone else might be held accountable for their actions.

Yet whenever the book seems to become conventional, it shrugs its shoulders, reveals conventionality to have been a red herring. Take for example its decision to limit its narration closely to Frances. We only really know how Frances is feeling. Lilian remains much more shadowy. Thus we too become suspicious of her motivations, her loyalties, her responses. We share in Frances’s suspicions. Did Lilian know, for example, about the large life insurance policy Leonard had taken out on himself only a few months before his death? Does Lilian love her—she’s never been with a woman before, after all—or is she taking advantage of her?

Lilian is the novel’s greatest enigma. We always have to read her through others’ perceptions. Even her most direct utterance—a love letter she sends Frances when away on holiday with Leonard—turns out to be open to more sinister interpretations. Added to this inscrutability are the facts that come to light about Leonard after his death. He turns out to have been having a long-standing affair with another woman, Billie, whose sometime boyfriend/fiancée, Spencer, had beaten him savagely several months earlier. Leonard’s best friend Charlie, meanwhile, was involved with Billie’s sister, which explains why he maintained to the police that he and Leonard were together on the night of his death: he was with that girl and didn’t want his fiancée to know about it. (Are you keeping up with all this? It gets a bit complicated, though Waters is admirably lucid with her details.)

The book’s most interesting surprises have to do with the ease with which the women get away with their crime. No one notices those bloodstains on the carpets, especially after Lilian’s family and the police trample over the Barbers’ rooms. It rains heavily the night of the murder, washing away evidence and ensuring that the only possible witnesses (a spooning couple) couldn’t see anything. Suspicion, which had first fallen on Charlie, comes, after the revelations about Leonard’s affair, to rest on Spencer, a young tough with a record of assault. He admits to the earlier attack on Leonard and relishes, at least at first, being accused of a crime he insists he didn’t commit but which he is glad about. Even when the boy goes on trial for murder, prompting the women to agonize over their responsibility in letting an innocent man be accused, this problem too goes away: a new witness, a fellow lodger of Spencer and his mother—they let rooms in a house much shabbier than the Wrays’—comes forward at the trial to confirm that Spencer had been at home the night of the murder. This man—a war veteran who loses his sales job by testifying (he was meant to have been in Leeds on business)—is the most admirable character, the only one we can unreservedly sympathize with.

Significantly, the man is never named, and so stands, not as a British Everyman, but as a symbol of the possible integrity that might remain in a society that has been thoroughly transformed by war, no matter how people like Mrs. Wray try to pretend it hasn’t. Like so many other veterans, various examples of which flit through the novel, the man is scraping to make ends meet, trying out all sorts of odd jobs. To lose this one is a hardship: doing so reinforces his bitterness at the society that fails to acknowledge the things he went through on its behalf.

Unacknowledged sacrifices are everywhere in the book. These losses are as much of people as of ideals, most obviously of sons and brothers, but also of lovers, especially same-sex ones. They are losses of expectation and hope. Is this, various characters ask, what we fought the war for? In this regard, the paying guests of the title might be everyone in England, or almost everyone. Certain no one seems at home in the new order, and everyone has had to pay.

Everyone except, suddenly, Frances & Lilian. The jury is convinced by the ex-serviceman’s testimony and finds Spenser not guilty. Leonard’s death is destined to remain unsolved. The women are free, their consciousnesses mostly assuaged. And just when it seems as though none of those things are enough to overcome the harm that’s come to their relationship, just when Frances has contemplated suicide from the Battersea bridge (but, in her sensible way, quickly rejected it), at that very moment Lilian breathlessly arrives and the novel concludes by intimating a new beginning for the two of them.

In this way, The Paying Guests uses its crime story framework to ask the question, what would happen if you got what you wanted, if all the obstacles to your desire melted away? One answer is that there’s no such thing: there are always obstacles, we never get what we want. That’s the lesson of most crime stories, from Macbeth to Patricia Highsmith.

But the novel’s more interesting answer is that this crime does pay, because of the desire that motivates it. The most ingenious thing Waters has done here is to use the conventions of crime fiction to make her point about the invisibleness of same-sex, especially lesbian desire. Although Waters creates a lot of suspense as to whether suspicion will fall on Frances and Lilian, ultimately, she suggests, that suspense is beside the point. The law—exclusively, even obstreperously male here—simply cannot imagine Frances and Lilian as co-perpetrators, as co- anything. The police are no different from Leonard, who assumes his wife must have been with another man. We can imagine that, had the women confessed, the police would have been as unforgiving as Leonard was. But they’ll never get there on their own. Only other women—Lilian’s sisters in particular—can even begin to imagine the truth—not about the murder, but about the nature of Frances and Lilian’s relationship. But that “knowledge” can’t extend beyond an inarticulate suspicion of something queer.

Waters is too attuned to historical reality to paint too optimistic a picture of the possibilities enabled by the invisibility of lesbian desire. After all, the relationship between Frances’s former lover, Christa, and her artist friend Stevie appears only at the margins of the story: their life together seems precarious. And Waters doesn’t show us what Frances and Lilian’s life together looks like. But the absence of robust, open, healthy lesbian relationships isn’t just an acknowledgement of history. It’s also, more interestingly, a function of the book’s narrative form.

Waters hasn’t always handled similar material in the same way. The Night Watch, for example, is another story of war and homosexuality. There too, forms of life, expressions of desire, that are possible in wartime (in this case, WWII) become much more difficult afterwards. But that novel qualified its narrative of the rise of peacetime conventionality by telling its events in reverse (that was the source of much of its power), so that the narrative of the book countered the narrative of history.

By contrast, the conventional structure of The Paying Guests left me unsatisfied. Although suspenseful, it more often feels inert, as if it were leading to something it chooses not to develop. It’s not just my naïve desire to know whether things turn out happily ever after that was disappointed by the ending. I wanted the book to take on the challenge of imagining what Frances and Lilian’s life would look like, as two women living together, let alone two women who bore the burden of the secret of their responsibility in a crime.

I think the book is aware of this failure, if not in terms of its characters then in terms of its form. Remember those references to acrostics I started with. Although it’s helpful of Waters to use the second reference to remind us of the first, there’s an obviousness here—aren’t we supposed to make the connection between the daughter’s situation and the mother’s puzzles?—that makes me think about what kind of book The Paying Guests wants to be. For not all books are supposed to be puzzles. In this regard, the part of these passages that seems the most important is nothing to do with puzzles per se but rather with the kind of book the puzzles are in: “a little railway thing.” The dismissal is Frances’s, though it might equally be her echo of Mrs. Wray’s sensibility: its snobbishness disguised as self-deprecation suits her to a tee. It doesn’t really matter, since, at the beginning of the book, mother and daughter quite agree, at least on matters of social class.

But does Waters agree? I don’t think so. I think she wants to write “a little railway thing”—though, to be sure, and this is a significant difference, a queer one. Waters has always loved popular late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literary forms (sensation fiction, detective fiction, gothic fiction, suffragette memoirs). But her desire to re-write them from a queer perspective means she can never inhabit them fully. In her past work, this has felt like an enlivening tension. But here the ambivalence comes across as more uncertain. One way to take the measure of that uncertainty is to consider the novel’s allusions to canonical literary modernism, a movement that prided itself on being puzzling.

The opening line—“The Barbers had said they would arrive by three”—feels like a flat echo of the one that famously begins Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Frances’s meditation on her neighbourhood’s seclusion—“you’d never guess that a mile or two further north lay London, life, glamour, all that”—sounds like a drier, less rhapsodic version of Clarissa’s hymn to “what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.” (Waters’s book, by contrast, begins on “a wet April evening.”) But when Frances does slip into the city, she sounds like the much-wealthier Clarissa:

She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged… It was like being a string, and being plucked, giving out the single, pure note that on was made for. How odd, that no one else could hear it!

The rush of metaphors, the sensual attunement to the world, the exclamatory free indirect discourse: why, Frances here almost makes herself into the peals of Big Ben that boom and dissolve across Woolf’s novel.

As I read on, I kept finding other modernist references: the flower-seller Frances dashes over to as she accompanies Christina reminded me of the destination of Clarissa’s initial errand. Other references seemed more overt. The description of a sudden, pregnant silence—“She was aware of rain, in a sudden shower”—echoes the line from “The Waste Land” about the summer that surprises “in a shower of rain.” Frances’s hysterical vision, as she waits for Lilia not return from the chemist’s with the abortifacients, of a London overrun with infants—“Everywhere she looked she saw prams, she saw babies with pink, alive faces”—echoes Vivienne Eliot’s similar yet much more horrified vision in a letter to her husband. And Lilian’s exclamation about a poor world reminded me of Stevie’s heartfelt cry in The Secret Agent, “Bad world for poor people!”

At times I thought Waters might be thinking of her own novel as a kind of dialogue with that earlier novel, Conrad’s own remarkable exploration of the uses that genre fiction (spy stories, detective fiction) might be put to. I haven’t the energy to check if I’ve remembered this correctly, but Leonard stays in my mind as fleshly, rather like Conrad’s Verloc, and there is, of course, the similarity between the novels of a murder committed from outraged despair at the thought that the person one most loves might be threatened. Conrad subordinates genre convention to modernist imperative much more than Waters; and his book is much more pessimistic, even deterministic. So I don’t want to suggest they’re in any way the same book. I’m similarly willing to admit that I may be finding these allusions where they don’t really exist. (Did anyone else notice them?) But they struck me as signs of Waters’s own uncertainty about what kind of a book she’d written: a conventionally, if carefully structured crime story that might while away a railway journey that sometimes willfully disdains the more experimental literature of the period in which it is set yet which sometimes yearns for, even needs that very experimentalism as a way to be able to tell what, in the actual genre fiction of the period, would have been an untellable story. (Again, maybe I’m wrong. There might be a ton of Golden Age lesbian crime fiction that I don’t know about. If so, please enlighten me!)

I certainly don’t regret reading The Paying Guests (it’s long, probably too long, but a quick read). I’ll read anything Waters writes. But I don’t think this one quite came off. Perhaps we might think of it as a bit of a paying guest amongst the more established instances of her impressive body of work.



Some thoughts on recent reading, mostly crime fiction related:

Some Die Eloquent—Catherine Aird (1979)

Discovered Aird thanks to Steve at Stevereads (how does he read all those books?). Some Die Eloquent must come midway through the Sloan & Crosby series, but I don’t think it matters much where you start. Aird is clearly a genius in her way and I wonder why she’s not better known. Wonderful dialogue (witty but not snappy: dry), very funny, keen eye for the way institutions work (here medicine, especially hospitals). And a decent plot in less than 200 pages. Take that, bloated 400-pp crime novels! More Aird is definitely in my future.


Several books by Karin Fossum (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, Charlotte Barslun, and others)

I read Fossum’s Inspector Sejer books when they first started appearing in English translation, about ten years ago. I liked them well enough, but suddenly there were more and more and they just didn’t grab my attention enough to continue. I returned to her this year thanks to the English-language publication of the first in the series. (Eva’s Eye in the US, In the Darkness in the UK—both quintessentially lame crime fiction titles.) Despite what I just said above about length—the book is 400 pp—I thought this an auspicious start to the series.

Ruth Rendell claims to like these books, and it’s easy to see why. Like Rendell, Fossum is primarily interested in motivation—most of her books aren’t that suspenseful. Rather, the suspense comes from seeing how the perpetrator’s actions come undone. Fossum is better than most crime writers at characterization: her best feat comes in The Indian Bride, where she manages to make plausible and sympathetic an aging Norwegian bachelor who goes to India to meet a woman after falling in love with a picture in a National Geographic book. Eva’s Eye is good in this regard, too, giving us a desperate, haughty, and clueless artist.

What I particularly like about the first book is its balance between criminal and detective. Sejer is a bit in the sensitive mold I’ve decried before, but his triumphs are more muted and thus more palatable. In later books, Fossum seems unable to decide what she wants to do with Sejer. Sometimes he’s important, sometimes barely present. It’s as if she’s experimenting with crime novels that would have no detective or inspector, and only accidental perpetrators. I guess I like my procedurals more conventional. Still, I read four of these in a row, and have now read almost everything that’s in English, and I’ll likely pick up the latest translation when it’s out this summer.


Red Road—Denise Mina (2013)

Mina’s a superior crime writer, one of the few I’ll drop everything for. Her previous books have come in trilogies; I was glad to see that Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. Morrow is a great character: smart, a bit stroppy, unable to let things go. Halfway through the book a body is found in an apartment high rise that’s being demolished. Morrow’s unwilling trip to the scene of the crime is a brilliant, frightening set piece. I don’t think Red Road is as good as either the second or third in the series, but it’s totally worth your time.


Life After Life—Kate Atkinson (2013)

Some of the people whose reading taste I respect most really love this book. I liked it, too, even quite a lot at times. But I didn’t fall under its spell the way they did. Strange, that: the book ought to be right up my alley, being set in the historical periods (Edwardian England through WII Germany) I’m most invested in.

Ursula Todd, the protagonist, lives many lives in the book, eventually learning to avoid the causes of death and unhappiness (influenza, rape, sexual abuse) that befall her in some versions of the story. At some point, Todd, struggling through a series of vividly depicted second world wars (though I prefer Sarah Waters, or, you know, Henry Green, on the Blitz), both in London and Berlin, decides she must assassinate Hitler to stop the bad things of the twentieth century happening. This view of history is less juvenile than Quentin Tarantino’s, say, but still pretty naïve.

Atkinson, never much of a stylist, does better with England than Germany (despite the irritating, anachronistic “parade of historical ideas” quality, evident, for example, when Todd is sent to a Harley Street psychoanalyst quite unlikely to have present in the early 1920s of historical London). Atkinson did a lot of research for the book, and it shows, mostly in the laboured scenes set in Germany. There’s a whole dull little biography of Eva Braun waiting to be excised from this book.

The book’s merits are two-fold. The first is in its play with our attachment to Ursula. We do get attached to her, despite or perhaps because she keeps dying on us. Each death comes as a bit of a shock, a disturbance anyway, even though we know she will begin life again on the next page. Atkinson makes us care about Ursula and her family a lot. I think the book’s structure is key to that feeling, but I’m not sure how exactly. Anyone have any ideas?

The second is its steadfast refusal of romantic love for Ursula. She has a few relationships, even in one life a (disastrous) marriage, but none of them are ever important. As the lives pile up and she starts to “learn” from earlier ones, she avoids sexual and romantic intimacy more and more. One reason for that is a traumatic early experience, important in a book that believes events have resonances not just over the course of a life but across many lives. Another, more interesting, reason is that there are already lots of intense relationships in the book—they just happen to be between siblings. Interestingly, the Todd children aren’t orphans, in the way they might have been in the Edwardian children’s book that lurks in the unspoken background to Life after Life. What this means is that the book doesn’t feel the need to undo the parent-child relationship altogether to present the one between siblings as the most meaningful one a person can have.

Still, I wanted the book to do more with these things. I wanted it to be smarter. But I can understand why many smart readers are excited about it. For a particularly compelling view, read Derek Jenkins’s Goodreads review—it is better than the book itself, and, at moments seems to be a brilliant riposte to, for example, Adam Mars-Jones’s surprisingly brittle and hostile review in the LRB: “When someone complains about the slack internal logic of Todd’s eternal recurrence, they aren’t exactly missing the point, but they are evidently missing some of the pleasure.” Wonderful!


Several books by Benjamin Black

When it first came out I eagerly read Christine Falls, the Irish novelist John Banville’s pseudonymous effort at crime fiction, set in 1950s Dublin and starring a pathologist named Quirke. In the meantime, Black has published a number of sequels, which have accumulated on my shelves on the hopeful assumption that I would like the others as much as I did the first. I’ve read the next three now, and they’re entirely satisfying, although sometimes a bit workmanlike. Black is better on atmosphere—he sure gets the fug of provincial cities right—than on plotting, and the general trajectory of the books (Quirke stumbles upon wrong-doing at the highest echelons of the young Republic’s oligarchy and is unable to do much about it) gets repetitive. But he’s a good writer, and he comes by his genre interest legitimately: as a reviewer of his recent Marlowe novel put it, the best part of Banville’s work already involved secrets and investigations of one sort or another.

He can do you a fancy, (almost) overripe sentence:

Strange, how for him all the uncertainty and doubt, all that feeling of adolescent fumbling, how it was all gone, rid of in an instant, replaced by something deeper, darker, of far more weight, as if that kiss had been the culmination of a ceremony he had not been aware of as it unfolded, and that had ended by their sealing, there by the cold hearth, a solemn pact of dependence and fraught collaboration, and it was not the nearness of the fireplace, he knew, that was giving to his mouth a bitter taste of ashes. (A Death in Summer, 2011

And he can do you a marvelously efficient one:

All institutional buildings made Quirke, the orphan, shudder. (The Silver Swan, 2008)

That’s how you do exposition!