“Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death,” wrote William S. Burroughs.
Murder is a most distasteful and troubling concept. To contemplate a human being deliberately taking the life of a fellow human being is indeed terrible to contemplate. It is certainly nothing that a normal, healthy person would wish on themselves or on anyone they love, or like, or care about, or even someone they don’t like or care about. We don’t tend to wish murder on anyone. No one in their right mind likes or wants murder. Murder in real life is a thing to be avoided.
So why, then, is there nothing so satisfying, so engrossing, so cozy, so alluring as a good murder mystery?
I will not attempt to answer that question. But I confess: I do love me a good murder mystery. And I have just read three of them.
Many of you are fans of Louise Penny, the Canadian writer, good pal of Hillary Clinton and author of 18 books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. Her most recent novel, “A World of Curiosities,” is one of her best.
Very briefly, the plot involves a man and a woman (Sam and Fiona Arsenault, brother and sister) reappearing after many years in the lives of Gamache and his son-in-law and colleague, Jean-Guy Beauvoir.
Sam and Fiona were children when their mother’s body was discovered one bleak November day on the shore of a lake northeast of Montreal. Gamache was called away from Sunday breakfast with his young family to investigate the morbid scene. “It was hard to tell her age. Not young. Not old. The water, and death, had slackened her face, washing away age lines. Though she still looked worry-worn.”
Years have passed since that day. But with the sudden reappearance of the now-adult orphans, memories and thoughts begin to percolate and stew, along with new mysteries, including a dread-filled 160-year-old letter from a stonemason; a hidden room; a finely detailed, bizarre work of art; a ticket to an art exhibit; a brick; and the sense that, as Gamache says to his son-in-law Beauvoir, “This was not a puzzle. It wasn’t an exercise. It wasn’t even a job. This was a sacred duty. To the dead, and those who wept.”
Penny has a knack for invoking the ominous, the looming shadows of evil and the devious psychopathic manifestations of the criminal mind, yet no author I can think of so handily and sentimentally portrays familial love and loyalty, the joy and comfort of a good marriage, the bonds of true friendship, the stabilizing warmth of home and hearth and the enjoyment of excellent food. Penny fans will delight to meet up once again with old friends like ex-therapist and bookstore owner Myrna, innkeeper duo Gabri and Olivier, artist Clara, Gamache’s gracious wife Reine-Marie, and tippler/poet Ruth and her companion and often profane pet duck, along with the cozy village of Three Pines, not far from the Vermont border, happy home base for all the above.
The narrative is peppered with the poetry of the difficult, eccentric Ruth, adding an interesting literary layer to the novel. For example: “When Jean-Guy left, Armand stood in the living room and opened the thin volume of poetry. … To the poem. ‘Waiting.’ And after all it is nothing new / It is only a memory, after all / a memory of a fear. … A Memory of a fear / that has now come true.”
As I said, this is one of Louise Penny’s very best. Highly recommend.
Another murder mystery, of a slightly different ilk, is one that Elizabeth at The Flying Pig recommended to me one day when I stopped by: “Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone” by award-winning stand-up comedian Benjamin Stevenson.
It begins, “Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.” Early on in this novel, the reader is told on what pages the deaths will occur, including “a hat trick on page 81,” and informed that “there are no sex scenes.”
The narrator of this fresh, witty, funny novel is Ernest Cunningham, known to his friends and family as Ern or Ernie. He is a writer of how-to guides for the murder-mystery genre. “Look,” he explains, “we’re not a family of psychopaths. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some just unfortunate. Which one am I? I haven’t’ figured that out yet. … Have I killed someone? Yes. I have. Who was it? Let’s get started.”
But hold on. Because before we “get started,” readers are made aware of the “10 Commandments of Detective Fiction” (Ronald Knox, 1929), as well as the membership oath of the Detection Club, a 1930s secret society of mystery writers including Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and Dorothy L. Sayers: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God?” (The Detection Club was really a thing. How do I know this? Because I looked it up. G.K. Chesterton was the first president, there was a fanciful initiation ritual, and the above mentioned oath was written by Dorothy L. Sayers.)
“Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone” is a murder mystery that is also about writing a murder mystery. At times extremely amusing and laugh-out-loud funny, it takes place at a family reunion at a secluded snowy mountain retreat. It couldn’t be more different than the Louise Penny, but very worthwhile, very fun.
Last, but not least, we have “Mad Honey,” Jodi Picoult’s most recent novel, written with Jennifer Finney Boylan. I am a big fan of Jodi Picoult, whose novels are typically good solid page-turners that wrestle with an assortment of hot ethical topics. I think I have read almost all Picoult’s 28 books, and am recalling: stem-cell transplant, teen suicide, eugenics, fertility issues, the death penalty, mercy killing, reproductive rights, school shootings, the Holocaust, COVID-19 …
“The act of writing,” Picoult says, “is the act of trying to understand why my opinion is what it is. And ultimately, I think that’s the same experience the reader has when they pick up one of my books.”
She writes, she says, about subjects that keep her awake at night.
The book’s co-author, Jennifer Finney Boylan, is also quite prolific. She has written 16 books and since 2008 has been a contributing opinion writer for the op/ed page of The New York Times. Finney is a well-known advocate for human rights and has appeared several times on the Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as Larry King Live. She is a member of the faculty of the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference of Middlebury College, just down the road.
I had a hard time putting this book down. I want to tell you all about it, but I don’t want to ruin any surprises. I will tell you this: Olivia has a great life living in Boston, married to a heart surgeon, raising a young son named Asher. But then things I’m not going to discuss with you get ugly, and Olivia and Asher end up moving to the small New Hampshire town where Olivia grew up. There, Olivia takes over her father’s beekeeping operation. There are lots of details about bees and beekeeping, which I thoroughly enjoyed and is also the reason I gave this book to my sister, an amateur but ardent beekeeper. There are many interesting and hither-to-unknown (to me) details about bees and beekeeping.
OK, so where was I?
In New Hampshire, teenage Asher ends up dating a classmate named Lily. But then there is a death. Is it a murder? Sure looks like it. Which means that things start to slowly get uncovered and revealed. And the reader finds herself plunged into a quintessentially Picoult-ian ethical pickle stew. Whodunit is only one of the questions in this well-crafted and suspenseful novel, which is also, by the way, a love story.
“Mad Honey” is one of my favorite Jodi Picoult novels, and I have great respect and appreciation for the co-author, Jennifer Finney Boylan, who has added depth, texture and expertise to this very good book. Highly recommend. A great gift for a book-loving, beekeeping sister, or friend, or for anyone on your list who enjoys being entertained, educated and challenged.
A great line from the book: “How similar does someone have to be to you before you remember to see them, first, as human?”