Crime is universal; not a corner of the globe is immune from the dastardly deeds of its perpetrators.
It may not always be as “brutal” as reporters and headline writers around the world seemingly wish us to believe.
In many cases (white collar and cyber crime come quickly to mind), not a drop of blood is spilled, not a cut suffered nor a bone broken, and the victims continue to breathe, albeit somewhat less easily.
But whatever the level of harm incurred, there is a crime sure to have been committed (or planned to come) wherever humans tread.
“Get Forensics to check those footprints.”
And it has been that way long before crime fiction became the genre sitting at the top of the book publishing tree. Yet to be discovered, though I am sure it is there, is a question mark carved into the wall of a Stone Age cave; or hieroglyphics awaiting translation as “Who dunnit?”
“Tape off the area, constable. This a crime scene.”
This universality is a huge part of its appeal. Devotees are whisked away to places that live only in the wish-lists of travellers, to far-flung lands and locations that are brought to vivid life as we follow in the footsteps of an all-nations club of crime-solvers. Myriad detectives and truth-seekers who venture way beyond the tourist trail even in cities that are sinking beneath tides of visitors.
Venice, for example, where Donna Leon continues to unveil routes along those calles and canals where few tourists ever stray. Using Commissario Brunetti (and his delightful family) to bring the city and its people to life far better than any guidebook.
As does the leader of the pack, Ian Rankin, as he embraces us in his love affair with Edinburgh to relate the trials and tribulations of the dogged John Rebus battling crime king Big Ger McCafferty and corrupt fellow cops.
Then there is Abir Mukherjee illuminating India under the Raj, Simenon directing the glow of Maigret’s matches and pipe into the dark side of Paris, Yrsa Sigurdardottir warming us to Iceland’s ice and snow.
We have Will Dean shining a light into Nordic forest life, Ann Cleeves sharing her love of the landscapes of Northumbria, Shetland and North Devon and Andrea Camilleri having us salivate over Sicily’s seafood and wine while Inspector Montalbano despatches Sicily’s bad guys.
And so many more. Where the locus (as the cops love to describe it) is as much the appeal of the tale as the actual crime, In so many locations. Getting us to pack our metaphorical bags and join them where no tourist ever goes.
All of which leads me into mention of a destination well off the usual well-beaten tourist trail. And the author responsible. A pairing that only recently have I discovered, though its delights and main guide have been luring crime travellers to the bookshelves for quite some years, decades even.
It’s an odd oversight on my part because a long-ago partner devoured these books in plain sight and recommended them highly at the time. I can but regret I bypassed her urgings until only very recent times.
Meet Canadian author Louise Penny. She came late to writing – at the age of thirty-five, with her first book published ten years later. Decades on and she is hailed in many quarters as one of the all-time greats. And she has close to twenty crime novels to her name, all featuring the honourable Quebecoise detective Armand Gamache.
These are books with soul. Gamache is a thinker, a man who feels and emotes, who ponders deeply before rushing into action, or to judgement. His crime-solving record is exceptional but that gains him scant credit or friendship among his colleagues. Nor are his methods and attitude appreciated by a hierarchy that tends to sideline him from any policy or decision making.
But he perseveres, sharing the limelight with the delightful remote village community of Three Pines. Almost idyllic in its setting and home to a mostly likeable and quirky assortment of inhabitants and generally divorced from the more phrenetic world beyond.
The one minor blot on its surface calm is a Midsommer-level of crime. Its outwardly harmless citizens are prone to meet their maker well above the national crime rate and in all manner of unexpected ways.
In A Fatal Grace the victim has the misfortune to be electrocuted when sitting down amid the snow to watch the traditional Boxing Day curling match – a baffling technical achievement by the murderer that takes Gamache deep into family feuds and artistic rivalries.
In Still Life, respected local artist Jane Neal is found dead in the woods on Thanksgiving, killed by bow and arrow. Not just any bow and arrow, but the type used by the local game hunters.
Deadly deeds that Gamache steadily and patiently unravels, threading his way through the fascinating characters that clog his path, pondering clues that confuse and obstruct and at times confronting physical danger along the way.
The characterisation is superb. The portrayal of people and place, fine etched and distinctive. Jumping off the page, credible and interesting. Quality writing to match tantalising plots.
Penny doesn’t dwell on the gore and the horror and the impact is all the greater for it.
It’s page turning reading that opens up yet another little known corner of the world for crime fiction fans to explore in the company of a guide who knows every twist and turn of the landscape, and in all seasons.