Louise Penny has, for some time now, been one of my favourite crime writers. I was, therefore, very pleased to be given the opportunity to read her most recent novel, The Long Way Home, in advance of publication in order to write a review of it for Shiny New Books. You can read that review by following this link.
However, much as I enjoyed this book, it did give me pause for thought. As you will see from the review, I found myself questioning whether Penny, like the central (though absent) character in this novel, Peter Morrow, shouldn’t be asking herself whether or not she wanted to continue as a crime writer. The Long Way Home doesn’t need a murder to make the point that Penny is exploring: namely the impetus behind the creative process and what examining that impetus means for the people involved. But, Penny is a crime writer. Her readers expect a murder. Or perhaps, more importantly, her publishers and their publicists demand a murder because they don’t have faith in her readers to follow a writer they love into something rather different. As I say in the review
there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.
More pertinent perhaps, is the question would her publishers ever allow her to tell them.
What I didn’t go on to to say in that review is that in this novel Penny herself references some of the writers I think she has the skills to emulate. When I read her more recent books with their insightful dissections of the ways in which people and communities respond in moments of crisis, the authors I think of are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo and perhaps especially, Elizabeth Strout. I would love to turn any of these loose in Three Pines and see what they had to tell us about the social chemistry of the village, but I shouldn’t need to because Penny is more than capable of telling us herself.
This isn’t the only crime novel I’ve read recently where I’ve felt there was a rather different type of story fighting to get out. Val McDermid’s most recent freestanding story, The Skeleton Road, which I reviewed here, is another where I thought the author was much more interested in the background story than in the crime that was the excuse for telling that story. Would her publishers have been prepared to take the risk, however, on a novel that they couldn’t advertise as the latest McDermid murder hunt?
You begin to understand why, when J K Rowling wanted to break out in a new direction, she was so insistent on doing it under another name. Maybe it wasn’t simply (or perhaps that should be even) that her original audience wasn’t prepared to try something new, but that, where their best selling authors are concerned, publishers will only accept more of the same.
But, a good writer is a good writer whatever the genre they choose to adopt and to tie someone to the same patterns repeatedly is to deny them the opportunity to develop and grow. It also denies the reader the opportunity to develop as they follow their favourite authors into new fields. It might be a vain hope, but it would be good to see the book world taking responsibility and helping both readers and writers stretch their creative wings and, like Peter Morrow, discover that they have more than one type of story to tell, that there is more than one type of story to read.