- - Friday, October 7, 2011

 

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT
By Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, $25.99, 352 pages

LONDON CALLING
By James Craig
Soho, $25, 320 pages

Agatha Christie probably would be happy in the idyllic little Canadian village of Three Pines, where murder
seems to be the cottage industry.


Of course, Christie always contended that evil was present in the most unlikely surroundings, and Canadian writer Louise Penny clearly shares her feelings. In the course of seven Penny mysteries, violent death has struck regularly in a town so charming that few want to leave. And Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous Belgian detective, might have found a good deal in common with Penny’s imposing Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Ms. Penny is more of a romantic than her English counterpart, who concealed a streak of steel beneath her demure demeanor and her knitting.

Three Pines, as presented by the author, is a miniature paradise of a place, with gourmet food served at an elegant bed-and-breakfast, a once-haunted house on a nearby hill, and a wildly eccentric poet who has a duck for a pet.

Ms. Penny writes with considerable sympathy for the plight of her characters and romanticizes Inspector Gamache, who dominates her books as Poirot never did any of Christie’s domestic mysteries. The people who populate Three Pines are presented in a manner to endear them to readers, occasionally to the point of being oversentimentalized. Not that it matters, because the village is such an enchanting little place that even its monsters have a certain appeal.

And it certainly has its monsters, some of whom are steeped in the kind of evil that Christie would have relished. Ms. Penny doesn’t quite make you feel sorry for the killer, but she does have a knack for explaining how he or she came to take up homicide, and Gamache emerges as a compassionate figure who is paternal to his young detectives when he thinks it is called for.

The central character in “A Trick of the Light” is Clara Morrow, a brilliant artist who has hitherto existed in the shadow of her husband’s work but suddenly finds herself a celebrity with a solo show at a major museum in Montreal. As the shy Clara waits trembling for reviews that will change her life, death intervenes in the shape of the corpse of Lillian Dyson, a childhood friend who has long been her bitter enemy. Perhaps only Ms. Penny would have Dyson’s body clad in a vivid red dress and lying in “a perennial bed planted with peony and bleeding heart and poppies.” Not to mention a broken neck inflicted by a guest at the party celebrating Clara’s artistic genius. Fortunately, Inspector Gamache is on the scene, as a friend of Clara’s and as a most observant guest. As the suspects pile up, the author uses the opportunity to open doors into the harsh world of professional art dealers.

When it turns out that the murdered Dyson was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and was trying to seek belated forgiveness from the long list of those who hated her for good reason, Ms. Penny moves into the sadly shadowed world of those for whom the only promise of help lies in the world of AA. Her characterization of the sufferings of alcoholics is deft and gentle.

Inspector Gamache is remarkably at home in such emotional settings, yet where he always seems to wind up is in Three Pines. It does seem that if the murderer doesn’t live there, he or she will show up there in what seems to amount to a family with homicidal tendencies. It is difficult to imagine that any mystery enthusiast will not enjoy a walk through the woods of Three Pines. Just remember to check whether someone is lurking behind a tree.

In James Craig’s “London Calling,” the life of London Chief Inspector John Carlyle is as far removed from the world of Three Pines as it is possible to get. In this hard-bitten political thriller, the author skillfully portrays Carlyle as a good cop who genuinely struggles with the problems of his job and his lifestyle.

Mr. Craig, a former journalist, writes with brutal candor about crimes as vicious as crimes can get. His kickoff killing in a luxury London hotel is the springboard for scenes of past and present sexual sadism. It says something about the author’s capacity for the darkest of humor when his description of a corpse superglued to a car can evoke a chuckle from the reader as police try to detach the body.

The plot warns of the evil that can exist at the highest levels of power, including the office of the prime minister, yet the clues lead back to an act of terrible cruelty at an elite university. Inspector Carlyle finds joy in taking his young daughter to the school, a place he can barely afford, yet he finds time to relish the sights and sounds of London. It almost compensates for the grisly nature of his job. He is a conscientious and likable policeman with a dry sense of humor that gets him in trouble but pacifies readers weary of horror.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.