Sunday, June 06, 2021

On the side of the angels


Contains no plot spoilers

One of the things I love to do on holiday is get lost in a novel. This holiday, I have read All The Devils Are Here, the sixteenth in Louise Penny’s series of Chief Inspector Gamache Mysteries. These are among my favourite stories. Here’s why.

[1] The way in which Penny evokes place:

Penny understands the joy of discovering certain almost magical places for the first time; and the even greater joy of introducing someone else to that place, and their loving it, too. This, of course, comes with the great risk that they won’t see it for how you saw it: I well remember introducing a friend to the first Gamache mystery, and them hating it, a feeling as intense as my own but the exact opposite. To be honest, it caused me to question their judgement, even their character—in turn inviting me, in a very Penny-like way, to question my own second-guessing and conclusion-jumping in relation to my friend.

Penny also understands how place both changes and stays the same through time (including seasons), and that a dear space can be violated by the actions of others, but can even then be redeemed, scars remaining but adding to its depth of character, the richness of its story-holding.

[2] The insight Penny has into human nature:

Penny understands that everyone is capable of good and evil—and that we must be invited, again and again, to give greater weight to good, to choose good over evil. Even those we love are flawed; have tendencies, and make choices, that make them hard to love, at times. And yet, we are invited to love them, despite their flaws, and even, on account of the flaws we perceive (our own perception being not without flaws of its own). We are invited to choose forgiveness, again and again; and to recognise that it is never too late for the one who is consistently loved and forgiven to change. We are invited, also, to always take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Penny believes this—that a person can change, can make amends—because her own life had lost its structural integrity, and spectacularly imploded, by her mid-thirties, only to be redeemed, entirely unexpectedly, by love. This truth is explored not only through the story-arc of various recurring characters, but also by the motif, in several though not all of the stories, of structural engineering.

[3] The way Penny never loses sight of our blind spots:

Penny understands that we are all unreliable witnesses, in as much as we do not only observe things but supply an interpretation to what we see. This is inevitable, but problematic, for the reader as well as the characters. One of the things Gamache does (though it is hardly the focus of novels) is teach a class at the police academy, where his first act each year is to write Don’t Believe Everything You Think on the board. Our mind is a great weapon in the fight against evil, but it is a weapon with which we can shoot ourselves in the foot.

To mitigate, Penny arms Gamache with four other powerful statements, which he imperfectly but habitually lives by, and passes on to others:

I don’t know.

I need help.

I was wrong.

I am sorry.

They are insightful statements, from an insightful author, whose body of work helps me to be a better human. For, as author Neil Gaiman put it, fiction is a lie that teaches us deep truths.

Like Sayers, and in contrast to Conan Doyle or Christie, Penny loves her very human detective creation, flaws and all. She is not alone.


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