Some of the best thrillers for the beach or balcony
Just in time for the beach: Thriller fare from Ferguson, Penny and Dumont
It’s as if we want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Whether at the beach, the cottage or, for some of us, the more humble but no less congenial surroundings of Balconville, we seem to crave summer reading fare that adds some grit to the idyll. Now, as the dog days begin to wane, three novels present themselves for our delectation, two of them from established favourites, the third a translation of a French-language debut that’s more psychological thriller than crime fiction but scratches some of the same itches nonetheless.
Ever since his mid-career adoption of the John Farrow nom de plume as a genre vehicle, Trevor Ferguson has been blurring the line between crime fiction and just plain fiction to the point where, 16 years and four novels into the literary life of Sergeant-Detective Émile Cinq-Mars, the distinction has become all but meaningless. At this point in his career, Ferguson’s closest contemporary would have to be John Banville, the high-toned Booker-winning Irish novelist who has claimed a whole new popular following as crime writer Benjamin Black.
The Storm Murders (Minotaur, 312 pp, $29.99), the first of a projected trilogy in which each instalment involves a different extreme weather event, opens with Cinq-Mars in uneasy retirement, helping his wife breed horses on a farm outside Montreal but feeling himself at something of a practical and existential loose end. The spur to re-enter the messy fray of crimesolving comes when two young policemen, answering a call regarding an apparent murder in an isolated farmhouse in the aftermath of a blizzard, are themselves killed at the crime scene; in a very effective suspense-making hook, the killer(s) have somehow left no tracks in the snow. The murders bearing resemblance to a series of crimes in the U.S., an FBI man has crossed the border to poke around, and Farrow has fun letting Cinq-Mars bring the arrogant gumshoe down a peg or two, just one case among many in which the author flexes his flair for set pieces and razor-sharp dialogue. Especially if you’ve been following his progress as new books appear, Cinq-Mars is an old
friend by now; I, for one, would gladly read 300 pages of him musing aloud. That The Storm Murders also offers everything that can reasonably be expected of modern crime fiction is icing on already very satisfying cake.
If the sight on bookstore shelves
of Still Life (Sphere, 407 pp,
$18.99) induces déjà vu with Louise Penny fans, there’s a good reason: it’s a 10th-anniversary edition of the Knowlton resident’s award-winning debut, the book that introduced Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to the world and initiated a wildly popular series that’s now 10 books strong and counting.
Funnily enough for works so steeped in the intricacies of the Sûreté du Québec, the Gamache novels are in fact unashamedly extending a very English tradition — the classic whodunit. The tropes are branded in folk memory: someone (in this case
retired schoolteacher and amateur painter Miss Jane Neal) has been killed in an unconventional fashion (in this case by bow-and-arrow) and everyone within a well-defined perimeter (in this case the fictional Eastern Townships village of Three Pines) is a suspect. Three Pines is a place where no one is quite what they first appear to be — although the deception doesn’t apply in quite the standard way. While featuring its fair share of deeply rooted locals, the village also attracts sophisticates looking to reinvent themselves as rustics. There’s even a former Governor General’s Award-winning poet in the mix. Gamache applies the mystically attuned intuition Penny’s readers have come to know so well in tackling the question of just who would possibly want to kill a paragon like Miss Neal, in which task he is aided and more often hindered by thoroughly unpleasant novice cop Yvette Nichol. (Part of the fun of reading
Farrow and Penny back-to-back is in finding the occasional unintended overlap. When Cinq-Mars complains of young cops being “less willing to be taught a damn thing,” he may as well be describing the maddening Nichol.) Throughout, incidental pleasures abound. While it may be strange to say of a whodunit that you may not really care who did it, in Penny’s case it’s intended as sincere praise: the real satisfaction lies in the way a deft conductor marshals and manages her sizable orchestra. Mind you, when the miscreant is brought to rights, you do feel all is well with the world again.
On original publication in 2013, Claudine Dumont’s Captive (Arachnide/House of Anansi,
200 pp, $22.95) drew comparisons with Stephen King. A more pertinent parallel, given the book’s premise of a woman forced into an unexplained confinement, would be with Emma Donoghue’s Room, although Dumont’s aims are different in ways almost impossible to describe without violating all international anti-spoiler statutes. Emma, the book’s everywoman heroine, is a disaffected young urbanite muddling through her days in the least conspicuous way she can: living alone, working an unchallenging job at a call centre, drinking too much, her social and family contacts dwindling to near zero. Then, one night, persons unknown enter her home and remove her to a small grey room, keeping her disoriented on drugs and allowing her just enough sustenance to survive. Such a set-up risks tipping over into heavy-handed symbolism — confinement as metaphor for modern alienation, that kind of thing — unless the protagonist’s plight is conveyed convincingly. Everything hinges on Dumont’s ability to make you feel Emma’s confusion, panic and anger, and happily — OK, so “happily” is probably the wrong word here, but let’s proceed — that’s exactly what she does, aided by David Scott Hamilton’s translation. Even more than most thrillers, Captivity resists plot synopsis. A development 40 pages in changes the nature of Emma’s ordeal, and a last-page reveal — if you see it coming, you’ve got a sharper mind than this reviewer’s — casts everything that came before into a different light and practically demands that you read the whole thing again. Which you won’t mind doing. Be warned, though: you might not want to be alone in a small room when you do it. Try a beach instead.