I have quite mixed feelings about this one. It was enthusiastically recommended on Twitter by a couple of authors I do like, but from the very first page it felt clumsily written to me. A little overwritten — “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec knelt down; his knees cracking like the report of a hunter’s rifle, his large, expressive hands hovering over the tiny circle of blood marring her fluffy cardigan, as though like a magician he could remove the wound and restore the woman.” It just reads all wrong to me, and put me off right there — and that’s in the second paragraph. The same sort of style continues throughout, and extends to the characters as well — if there are two more florid and clichéd gay men in all of fiction, I’d almost be surprised, and it’s not as though that gives them life. It’s like a world of cardboard cut-outs, springing up to attention when the reader looks, but flattening down the rest of the time. Some of them were even ridiculous, like the young detective Yvette Nichol: she doesn’t seem capable, trained, adult — she seems like a child having a sulk, most of the time.
This is meant to be a ‘cosy’ mystery, apparently; though it doesn’t really feel like it, with the intrusion of the police into a small rural community, with an old woman killed by someone in that community… Normally in a cosy mystery, I guess I expect there to be a different sort of crime. Someone we sympathise with less, maybe even someone who we feel deserves it. The disruption of a small tight-knit community like this one is supposed to be is pretty much the antithesis of cosy, to me.
The one thing I did really like about this was the domestic partnerships. Gamache is far from the stereotyped lonely detective with a drinking problem, with a wife and a harmonious home to return to. Other characters in the book are married as well, and these relationships are presented as natural, symbiotic, fulfilling. Those were the moments where Penny shone, for me, because for that moment her characters did show a spark of life.
Ultimately, though, I found this really disappointing and just skimmed it. It’s cosy in the sense that it’s not gritty Ian Rankin/Val McDermid style crime, full of sexual abuse and the like. It seems to try and be more in the genre of Mary Stewart or Alan Bradley — the only writers I’d forgive that ending with the snakes — and, well, fails. I’m sure there’s an audience for it, but it ain’t me.