How the Light Gets In ~ Louise Penny – or How to Handle the Double Narrative

18296867Every year I treat myself to one particular book to be read over the Christmas period as a real personal indulgence.  Usually this will be a crime or fantasy novel from a series that I already know and relish. After all, isn’t that what Christmas should be about – spending time with those loved ones you only manage to meet up with perhaps once a year.  This year the book I’d saved was the latest in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series, How the Light Gets In.

This is the ninth full length novel about Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide for the Quebec Police Force and it takes him back, as so many of the novels do, to the village of Three Pines, so small and hidden away that it is not to be found on any map.  Given that it is at the centre of so many murder enquiries it is a wonder that Three Pines is as attractive as it is but one of the main reasons I go back to Penny’s work is so that I can spend more time in the company of the people who live there and hanker yet again for the chance to browse round Myrna’s bookshop and toast my toes over a log fire in Gabri and Olivier’s bistro.

Set as it is just before the Christmas holidays, How the Light Gets In is particularly appropriate for this time of year.  However, there is nothing very Christmasy about the atmosphere in Gamache’s homicide department.  Most of the agents he has trained up over the years have been moved out and his erstwhile second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, will have nothing to do with him. Those who have read the previous novels in the series will be aware what has brought about this situation and will be eager for a resolution.  However this is not a book you can pick up if you are not already familiar with the internal politics of the Quebec Force, which have run as an undercurrent through most of the preceding eight novels.  And therein lies a problem because, while the book does have a murder mystery that needs to be solved, that is of secondary concern compared with the final denouément of the struggle between Gamache and his superior, Chief Superintendent Francouer.  Indeed, the death of Constance Ouellet, the last survivor of a set of Quintuplets clearly based on the Dionne Quins, gets fairly short shift even though the culprit is eventually identified.  It is little more than a convenient narrative device to enable the final scenes of the internecine struggle to be played out in Three Pines rather than through the corridors of power in Montreal.  If you want a parallel, think about the judicious placing of the last Horcrux in Hogwarts School itself so that the ultimate battle between Harry and Voldemort can not only take place in the setting that readers know and love best but also involve all their favourite characters.

Ah yes, but the placing of that last Horcrux is more than judicious, it is also perfectly logical within the over all story.  There is nothing contrived about it.  Everything we have encounter up to this point has indicated that Voldemort will have involved the school in his destiny in some way or another.  So when Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem turns out to contain a part of Voldemort’s very being the showdown at Hogwarts can be woven seamlessly into the narrative arc of the final book.  It is all of a piece.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the plot lines in How the Light Gets In. Satisfying as the conclusion is for the reader who has made the journey with Gamache from day one of the series, even the most avid Penny fan is likely to have a problem accepting the overall shape of the story.

There are several different ways that a writer can go about structuring a string of novels intended to act as a series.  Some are simply a sequence of one off tales each involving the same location and characters but without any noticeable line of development running from book to book.  I suspect that those are rarer than we might think – I’m certainly struggling to come up with one at the moment – because in order to engage us with the main protagonists the author is more than likely to give them a personal back history and an ongoing and developing set of relationships that see those characters grow and change as the series progresses.  For example, those of us who have read our way through Peter Robinson’s novels have mourned with Alan Banks over the breakdown of what we first knew as a happy marriage, followed him through several more or less disastrous affairs and now settle down comfortably with him at the end of a difficult case in the cottage home that he has made for himself in the Yorkshire Dales.  However, at no point does the state of the Chief Inspector’s personal life take over from the murder investigation that is central to the plot of any particular story.  You don’t need to know his personal back story to follow the narrative line of any individual novel.

This can, of course, go wrong, especially if an author appears to become more concerned about the relationships between  their characters than they are with the crime that needs to be solved and which should be at the heart of the tale.  You may remember that I felt this was very much the case with Val McDermid’s latest Tony Hill novel, Cross and Burn, which seemed to me to have been contrived simply to reconcile Tony and Carol Jordan and bring the Chief Inspector back to her home force.  However, I don’t think it is this type of problem that concerns me where How the Light Gets In is concerned because I don’t think Louise Penny’s series belongs in this category.

There is another way in which a sequence of novels can be structured and while it is true that most often this type of organisation is associated with fantasy literature there is no reason why it shouldn’t be applicable to crime fiction as well.  Perhaps the best known example of what I’m thinking of is J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  Here we have what I like to call the double narrative at work in each of the seven books.  The primary narrative is the one which overarches all seven novels and at no time are we as readers in any doubt what that narrative entails.  After a number of preliminary skirmishes there will be a climatic encounter between Harry and Voldemort as a result of which the wizarding world will be changed forever.  Concurrently, each book has its own individual narrative arc that tells the story of one of those skirmishes but, and this is the key point, every one of those narratives functions as an episode in the primary narrative and its ultimate purpose is to forward the story as a whole.

This is actually very difficult to structure and to maintain.  To begin with the author has to know right from the outset where that whole sequence of episodes which makes up the primary narrative is going to end before they even start to write the first one.  This is truly a teleological process – the end drives the beginning and all that follows.  Well, we know that was the case with Rowling who has often talked about the way in which Harry’s story came to her complete during the course of a train journey.  However, then comes the really difficult task because if both the parts and the whole are to convince then the narrative arcs of both the overarching and the internal stories must be equally satisfactory.  All seven books must read as one story, but at the same time each individual book must work as a story too.

This is where I think Rowling’s real genius lies because she very nearly brings it off.  There is no problem with the first five books because their role in the overall story is that of the series of episodes that develop the plot and furnish the reader with certain expectations about the way in which the primary narrative is going to go.  Having each book tell the story of one school year fulfils this purpose admirably.  The problem comes with books six and seven, which in the overarching narrative have to signal the climatic elements in the predominant story.  They have to become what I would know as a zone of turbulence.  But how do you disrupt the main story while maintaining the coherence of the individual books?  It isn’t easy and I think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince very nearly gets away from her.  However, in the end she does manage  the juggling act and the two narrative levels work together very successfully indeed.

And this is what I feel Louise Penny was aiming for in her Gamache series – a double narrative in which the individual books prepare us for the cataclysmic outcome of the ninth novel.  The seeds of the dénouement of How the Light Gets In are sown right back in that first visit to Three Pines recounted in Still Life and further episodes are revealed in subsequent books.  The problem is that for the most part the elements that make up the ongoing primary narrative have not been integral to or integrated with the narrative arc of each of the individual novels.  With the exception of book six, Bury Your Dead, they have been secondary to the major crime that has needed solving and which has ultimately formed the central focus of each book. Consequently, when the author tries to bring the overarching narrative to a conclusion at the same time as recounting the investigation into a current murder enquiry it simply doesn’t work because that current case has nothing to do with the on-going internecine struggle that has now reached its climax and which in fact dominates the book.

To be fair, it is hard to see what else Penny could have done.  It would have been very difficult for her to have written a book that would have seen the establishment corruption lanced as effectively as it needed to be without also writing a book that would have made little or no sense to any reader new to the series.  The inclusion of the murder of Constance Ouellet is surely an attempt to get round this problem.  However, because that strand of the story receives comparatively little attention and is never satisfactorily wound up, the book feels untidy – not something I would ever have said about her plotting before.  The lesson is clear.  If you are going to have an overarching story that is at least equally as important as the novels that serve as episodes within that story you have to know where you are going from the beginning and plan accordingly.  There has been a lot of academic debate as to whether or not story is driven by the final cause; in series organised in this manner the answer is that it has to be.

19 thoughts on “How the Light Gets In ~ Louise Penny – or How to Handle the Double Narrative

  1. You’ve put your finger on what, for me, is one of the problems with current crime fiction. The overarching storyline is becoming the norm and means that the books have to be read in order – and more, that the reader has to remember what has happened in past books. With Harry Potter, I re-read at least the last book, before publication of each new installment. I’m afraid I’m not willing to invest the time to do that with every crime series. In the old days of Agatha Christie and her ilk, the detective did not grow or change – the crime was the thing. Not necessarily better, but certainly easier for the casual reader. And with the likes of Rankin, though his characters do develop over time, each story can easily be read as a standalone or out of order, without being hard to understand or being full of spoilers of previous books.

    • I don’t mind when it works well. Rowling comes close enough to bringing it off for me. But then this is my research area so I’m always happy to find more material to work with. I hadn’t thought about Christie, but you’re right her books are the perfect example of the first type of series I mentioned.

  2. And I’m not familiar enough with the Potter books to know about that, but I certainly do see the problem in much of the current crime fiction. I loved mystery books like Agatha Christie’s – it took awhile for me to get used to the new way of serial crime novels. I’m ready for Louise Penny’s new one but just haven’t got to it yet.

    • As long as you’ve read the previous eight you will be fine Becky, although you may see what is meant to be the murder mystery as something of an annoyance, which should never be the case.

  3. It is a shame the series didn’t wind up in a way that made you say wow. You read all of them though so it must have something going for it in spite of the disappointment.

    • Actually, she’s left herself an escape hole to write more, although she is going to have to work hard to get through it. The books are very good and she writes extremely well, it’s just that she’s lost her way with the need to structure two stories at once.

  4. I have this on my stacks but haven’t read it yet, so I just read the first paragraphs of your post. I was seriously disappointed with the last book, it had such basic errors about monastic life that any editor should have caught, and it rather put me off reading this one. Like you though I love wandering around Three Pines, and I want to catch up with Clara.

    • On the whole I think double narrative is something that adds to the scope of crime fiction – also, face it, to the longevity of a series! Peter Robinson, Rebus, the Stratton novels of Laura Wilson all use it well and the reader can cope with some ease. An interesting aspect of all this is the use of this technique in a series like the Bertie Gunther novels where the novels are set at different stages in the history of Nazi Germany- the world of the Berlin of 1936 as compared to the Prague of 1942 etc,etc where the historical background, the stages in the appalling horror and squalor of Nazi Germany contribute, at least in theory to the power and coherence of the series.

      • I think you’re absolutely right Ian and I was thinking about this only last night in relation to Claire McGowan’s work. Her first novel was a one off and there was no real indication as to whether or not that was also true of her second, but I’ve just discovered that the third is on the way and she is carrying the characters from the second forward. I’m sure that at some point an agent or an editor or a publisher has said to her you’ll get a much more devoted readership if they are coming back for a character that they know and love. The same thing happened with S J Bolton. But these are different to what Penny has been trying to do. She has had two storylines going at the same time and the overarching one has been the more important. That is what is so difficult to manage I think.

  5. I’ve only read Still Life by Louise Penny and I did enjoy it very much. But it was evident that I really ought to go back to the beginning of the series and read in order – there was much that I figured out as I went along in that novel, guessing at past events. It’s because I have to start at the beginning that I suppose I haven’t picked another of hers up. This is a very silly reason, and one I ought to overcome but I am a dreadful magpie and don’t always want to read every book by an author, even an author I like a lot. It’s very intriguing indeed to read your thoughts about the difficulty of managing overarching plot lines. I’m not that fussed about series and would rather read standalones, for the neatness, I guess!

    • Some of them are better than others, Litlove. I doubt I will ever have the courage to pick up ‘Bury Your Dead’ again because it hurt too much to read it so magnificent was the writing. I’m a sucker for series because it is the way in which writers manage the organisation of conflicting plot requirement s that really intrigues me. At the other end of the scale I also love picture books because I am fascinated by the way in which the plot is distributed between text and illustration.

  6. Wouldn’t the over-arching narrative be an important device in encouraging readers to come back for more – if they get hooked into wanting to know what happens next in that thread, you start to build anticipation for the next in the series?
    Disappointing to know the latest by Ms Penny isn’t up to the standards of the earlier ones – I’m only on book 1 but am hooked. I could live easily in Three Pines I think.

    • Absolutely, I have nothing against overarching plot lines it’s just that if they are going to be of prime importance you have to write the series with that in mind from day one. It’s very hard to do. And I wouldn’t say that this book is below Louise Penny’s standard just that you cannot possibly come to it if you haven’t read the others. By the way the first house that becomes vacant in Three Pines is mine, I’ve already got my name down.

  7. I’m not familiar with Louise Penny, but I’m very interested in your thoughts on J K Rowling’s double narrative. Think I will re-read the whole Potter series in a new light.

    • Do Nicola, I would love to know what you think about it. If you would like any material on the way in which plot lines are developed so that you can see more clearly what she is doing then do let me know.

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