Friday, November 20, 2009

Mysteries Bigger Than a Single Book: Two Significant Suspenseful Series -- Louise Penny and Michelle Gagnon

Here at Kingdom Books, when we introduce a series to someone who hasn't read any of the books by that author before, the first question we hear is, "Do I need to read the books in order?" And if the answer is "no," then the question is either, "What is this author's best?" or "Which one will take me into the series best?"

A couple of days ago, I provided a talk on the Nancy Drew books for a local college women's group. Reviewing the history of that famous series, I found that the contract for writers of the books had given an explicit instruction to mention other "cases" that Nancy had solved -- obviously, to encourage readers to purchase more of the 56 (!) books that eventually went into print for the original group.

On the other hand, this week I also caught up with Nevada Barr's 2009 volumes: one stand-alone psych thriller (13 1/2), and the other, BORDERLINE, the latest in the Anna Pigeon series, featuring the National Parks ranger and her dangerous law-enforcement career. BORDERLINE is a well-crafted page turner that uses the political maneuvers along the U.S./Mexican border to set Anna into several intense chase scenes, provoked by her deep sense of compassion for the helpless and her determination to fight for justice. It also poses a significant question for all female investigators: What happens to you and your career when a baby whispers its way into your life? (Bear in mind that Laura Lippmann has declared that "the day you see a car seat in the back of Tess's vehicle, it's over." Her Baltimore sleuth, Tess Monaghan, isn't going into that one!)

But Barr's BORDERLINE, even though its most acute stresses rest on the damage Anna Pigeon took during the events on Isle Royale in the preceding book WINTER STUDY, is easily a read-it-on-its-own book. Barr's smooth presentation of Anna and her inner conflicts is effective and concise. Reading or re-reading WINTER STUDY just before picking up BORDERLINE won't change the crucial understandings of the plot or of the shifts in Anna's grasp of her world.

Absolutely the opposite holds for Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache novels. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, caught in the conflict of French and English heritage and language, and focused initially on a Brigadoon-like village called Three Pines -- it's so out of the way that you only seem to find it, and its endemic peace, when you need it -- the series has already produced an Agatha Award and a New York Times bestseller for Penny, who is a former Canadian broadcasting (CBC) radio journalist.

And the Inspector Gamache books build quietly, one on top of the next, toward an exploration of evil and its effects that can only be noticed, comprehended, and appreciated if you read the books in order. Start with the relatively slow STILL LIFE, which initially appears to be a village "cozy" detective tale; A FATAL GRACE proves that behind the politics of Gamache's superintendent is a lurking menace that threatens to unravel his best work and, in THE CRUELEST MONTH, will attack and damage his family as well. Then Penny enters further darkness of place and soul in her fourth book, A RULE AGAINST MURDER, so that number five, THE BRUTAL TELLING, can prove once and for all that her village setting has nothing to do with coziness, and everything to do with threat and anguish.

Bottom line: The best aspects of Penny's books can only be tapped by reading these five in sequence. [By the way, you'll probably have to buy softcovers of the first one or two in the series -- the hardcover first editions have already become scarce.]

All of this thought brings me to Michelle Gagnon's FBI series, built around Special Agent Kelly Jones, a young woman who has climbed rapidly within the agency because she tackles violent crime with fierce determination. Gagnon positions Jones with two enduring personal crises that affect her investigative capacity: First and foremost, shadows from her childhood both fuel her determination and damage her sense of self. And second, as a vibrant young woman, she's vulnerable to the persistent courtship provided by Jake Riley -- and Riley, in ways that are frustrating and dangerous, can access the FBI's "old boy" network in ways that Jones, as a female, may never be allowed to do. At the same time, Riley's been independent for so long that he rocks each boat politically, while sometimes anchoring, sometimes storming Kelly Jones's life.

Gagnon is a California author with powerful links into the networks of suspense writing. Her debut in THE TUNNELS was greeted warmly by other authors, and I've recommended the book as one of those "paperback originals" that turn out to be a must for a serious collector in the field -- ignore the fact that the publisher is the relatively soft publishing house MIRA. (In fact, if MIRA keeps choosing authors like Gagnon, it will earn a very different reputation. You go, MIRA!) The violent criminal in THE TUNNELS quickly makes his attacks on female college students into a personal attack on Jones. And as the madness of the attacks escalates, a similar disturbing madness creeps out of the depths of Jones's past.

THE BONEYARD drew Kelly into political tangles that complicated and threatened her capacity to prevent serial killings and hostage taking. Written with expert pace and polish, it moved Gagnon onto my personal list of "this author is going to be a must-read from now on." Could you read it without having read THE TUNNELS and still get as much from it? Probably -- at least that was what I figured.

But now Gagnon's third Kelly Jones is available (came out a couple of weeks ago), THE GATEKEEPER. The cover blurb from bestselling suspense author Lee Child reveals that Gagnon's effort to write as powerfully as the top thriller authors has been highly effective. (She also earns review praise from Douglas Preston and Jeffrey Deaver -- see her web site, While she's honed her writing, she's also earned membership in Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance (!) Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers, and is a weekly contributor (usually on Thursdays) to the hot suspense writing blog The Kill Zone. In other words, as Kelly Jones fights for her successful career as a Special Agent, Gagnon's working just as hard and effectively in the suspense authors field.

When THE GATEKEEPER opens, a nasty kidnap-and-ransom case lands with an unpleasant splat on the desk of Jones's fiancé, Jake Riley. Jake's new investigative office, The Longhorn Group, is primed for this moment -- so with a wince of pain for the victim and her family, but also an undisguised eagerness, Jake plunges into action. He hopes that he may be able to lure Kelly into his operations eventually, if she finds the FBI as ultimately fettering and unsatisfactory as he already has. Meanwhile, he has a former CIA operative as business and investigative partner, and life looks good.

Special Agent Kelly Jones, at the same moment, is already caught in what may be a typical FBI web of government intrigue and misinformation, spun around the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a U.S. senator. Think Arizona, immigration reform, right wing versus left. Add skinheads, border militias, even bikers -- could something, or someone, be drawing the hate groups toward a common goal?

Obligations to the FBI, to the public, and to the battle against evil carry Kelly forward, sometimes impetuously. But it's the disaster of her childhood that drives her to take unreasonable risks. Solid love from Jake strengthens her, and ironically, pushes her more deeply into personal risk. Here's a peek at the conflict underneath, from both views:
(p. 184) Kelly clicked the phone shut, exasperated. She was still trying to process everything Jake had said, something about a kidnapped girl, a mothball fleet and a dead kidnapper. Then the offhand remark that she might have to post bail if things didn't go well. Not exactly a stellar beginnning for The Longhorn Group, she couldn't help thinking. She knew Jake well enough to assume he was glossing over details that might upset her. It was one of the things that gave her pause this ability to play things fast and loose when it suited him.

(p. 242, Jake's point of view) On the way back he reveiwed his last conversation with Kelly, and the reprobation in her voice. He knew they had different philosophies about how to work a case, and that if she joined The Longhorn Group that might become an issue. It could even end up widening the schism between them. But what was the alternative?

Needless to say, there's a lot of action taking place between these two reflections...

So, as for Louise Penny's series, reading Michelle Gagnon's suspense in sequence gives a richer, darker take on what's unfolding in this third volume. Unlike Penny's sequence, Gagnon's books are moving toward a more personal rather than political disaster. But the sense of being forced by one's past, and of struggling for courage and companionship in a career that force-feeds despair and depression to its most successful operatives, is fully present.

Thanks, Michelle Gagnon, for constructing this series and its compelling investigators. Not only do we now have three increasingly exciting books to enjoy -- but you've created a hunger for the next one. I'll be waiting. NOT patiently.


Michelle Gagnon said...

Thanks so much, Beth, I'm thrilled that you're enjoying the series! Any snow there yet?

Beth Kanell said...

Our area forecasters promise us that the snow will arrive within the next three weeks! We had a nice early snowstorm in October, and have been "saving on fuel" since then. The Canada geese have mostly headed south, and the remaining critters, from deer to squirrels, are wearing plush fur coats, thick and snug.

Oh yes, it's also a good season for books. Five packages head out of here in the morning mail -- and we are purchasing new gems each day. Aren't we lucky to be reading your work, Michelle?!