The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

abLouise 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.

17 thoughts on “The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

  1. Very interesting thoughts! And I agree – I’m sure it would do a lot of writers good not to be constrained to a particular genre, and we the readers should be prepared to follow them if they want to step into new territory. I suspect that the problem lies with publishers and money myself…. 🙂

    1. I didn’t express this post as well as I wanted to, Kaggsy, but I’m sure that there is a publishing/publicists issue of some sort here.

  2. Interesting review, Alex, and I wonder if you’re right about Penney’s publishers. I imagine writing in a particular genre might become extremely restrictive after a while.

    1. I have no way of knowing what the real situation is here, Susan, but I’ve had the feeling in both of Penny’s last two books that the murder was incidental to what she really wanted to write about. If that’s what a fairly experienced reader is feeling and one who really likes Penny’s work, then there is something out of kilter somewhere.

    1. The early books are good, Ana, but they get far better as she goes on. You need to get to number five, in my opinion, before you realise what a very good writer Penny is.

  3. Interesting! I’m always very aware of how versatile the classic writers used to be – they rarely stuck within one genre. But moving into the twentieth century lots of them did use different pen names when they wanted to do something a bit different – and lots still do. I do think the publishers must put too much pressure on crime writers to churn out a book a year, and I think the genre suffers badly as a result. I am also not a great enthusiast for tons of research being shoehorned into crime, so would be much happier to see authors who feel they want to address a particular subject do it via the lit-fic format rather than tacking it onto a crime plot. I can’t help wondering if an established author like Penny couldn’t take the risk now of going the self-published route, if her publishers wouldn’t let her spread her wings – her established ‘fan’ base would surely be willing to follow her…

    1. In many ways, I think Penny is something of an exception because she has created this community which is as central to the books as the police are and which attracts readers as much, if not more, than the crime element. I do however, see the parallels with the classic writers and indeed, as you say, with a number of modern writers who have explored different genre under different names. I just think it’s a shame that they have to do that and I’m not sure that there is a real need. I think publishers probably underestimate readers in this respect and that we are perfectly capable of tackling different genres or of sorting out which books by our favourite writers we want to read and which we don’t.

  4. While I enjoyed the mystery aspects of these stories, the real appeal has always been the characters, particularly for me Gamache and Clara – but also Reine-Marie and all of the characters, as well as the village itself. I would happily read more about life in Three Pines, even without the cases that brought them there in the past.

    I know you haven’t read Elizabeth Peters, but she wrote several series. One was so popular that her publishers supposedly pressured her into focusing on that series alone. She also wrote darker stories under another name, because the publishers were worried they might have a negative effect on the “Peters” brand.

    1. It is a tough one. I suspect it is not a new problem but since marketing has become so important in books it is much harder for a writer to break out at all. I agree that Val Mcdermid is an example of a writer who is just as interested in the larger story behind a crime. I am just now reading her 1999 A Place Of Execution which is harrowing and a classic of modern crime fiction.

    2. Am I going to have to fight you for the next house that comes up for sale in Three Pines, Lisa? It’s that bond that we feel with the village and the characters that makes me say Penny would have no difficulty if she were to move away from crime occasionally.

      What you say about Peters makes the point nicely. It is to do with branding. Readers are capable of moving beyond ‘brand’ and publishers should give us the credit for having a few brains of our own.

  5. I love Louise Penny’s books and I came to them as a crime fiction fan. I too had some reservations whether this last one can be called crime fiction, although I enjoyed it very much indeed and praised it highly in my review. I too expressed some reservations as to whether it would please crime fans who are new to Penny, but speculated that devoted followers would probably enjoy reading more about the village and the characters they are familiar with. And sure enough, I had many responses to the effect that ‘we are willing to follow Penny anywhere she might take us’. Perhaps publishers should remember that (as well as the JK Rowling example).

    1. As I said in an earlier response, Marina, I think Penny is perhaps special in this respect because she has, right from the beginning of the series, placed such an emphasis on the community, and those of us who have been there from the start are very much involved with the people who live in Three Pines. I also think, however, that she has grown as a writer and she is reaching out to explore greater depths of personality development than crime fiction often allows.

  6. That’s very interesting. I’ve only read one Louise Penny, but it was clear even back then that it was the location and the interaction of the characters that interested her more than the crime. It was like Miss Read with corpses. And more of a metropolitan setting at times. I do think authors should be allowed all possible creative freedom, but I doubt very much that publishers would agree with me.

    1. No, i don’t think they would either, Litlove. Which of the Penny’s did you read? They get very much better as she goes along, although in order to really understand what happens in the later books you do need to have been there from the start.

  7. I haven’t read The Long Way Home as I’m waiting for it to come out in softcover so I can carry it! I have the previous one on my pile of books to read. I’ve read every other one in the series so far, and they are so very good, all of them. I have sometimes said in my reviews that Three Pines sounds like a real place, and I would love to have a story on what life there is like, because it seems like the perfect village, doesn’t it? A village I’d like to live in (sans murders, of course). I hope to read How The Light Gets In very soon, though I am having problems with reading in general right now. I’m really happy that you like the latest one as much, though it is less about murder than other things, it seems. It might be all right in Penny’s hands. It will be very interesting to see what she writes next. On her Facebook page she talks alot about the writing process and what she is working on next.

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