Louise Penny, Kingdom of the Blind, Little, Brown   As complicated plots go, this is right up there. You will have an advantage if you already know the main cast of characters. So, the story till now is that Gamache is in trouble because he’s allowed criminals with a large shipment of drugs to get away with them. He is suspended, and so is Jean-Guy Beauvoir, more or less. Politics have made their usual messy inroads, and neither Gamache nor Beauvoir is keen on their interferences (the hierarchy covers its arse). No longer at the training Academy, Gamache is about to expel a difficult cadet who was set to graduate. She disappears into Montreal’s dark neighbourhoods. Pay attention here, because that sentence may be the clearest sentence in the first half of the book, which, since it follows on from the previous one, may require spending some of your previous Christmas dosh.  The usual suspects spend much of the time in Three Pines; in part, there has been a blizzard with a big fall of snow, and the community has been outside (very very cold) shovelling out their own paths and driveways then doing the same for neighbours who are housebound because of the weight of the snow. Since we know the core characters in the village, this may succeed in not having to reread the previous book, particularly as there are some fairly weird types in this one, including a notaire who has gathered three ‘liquidators’ to deal with an unusual will which turns out to involve a local cleaning lady, who owns a house that is about to collapse. The Notaire insists that the will be read at the house, and that Gamache, Myrna Landers, and young Benedict (whose presence makes no sense to any of them) find the will odd. The odd and perhaps fantasist will is at the centre of most of the book, not least because the testatrix’s wishes have involved excluding her children from becoming executors.

            Of the many things Penny is good at is things, and while one wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to a discovery that the oldest of the three siblings has a painting by Clara Morrow of Ruth Zardo as the Virgin on his wall, it would be a mistake not to pay attention, just as one knows that Rosa the duck is somehow involved. This matters because reading Louise Penny, you know that important information is going to slide between your fingers if you don’t keep up. The siblings all work in the financial district, and deal with extremely large amounts of money. It will take Gamache, Isabelle LaCoste, and Beauvoir a lot of digging before the outlines of the affair begin to take shape.

            So there is the expulsion of Amelia Choquet from the Academy; the displacement of Beauvoir and Gamache by very angry politicos; and a rather extraordinary scheme by Gamache to let Amelia off the lead in order to find the missing fentanyl. And, at this point, Penny is on the same hunt that Michael Connelly recently wrote about. Here, though, the charismatic Gamache has been able to persuade agents to follow Amelia in order to find who has the missing drugs and where he is hiding them. Don’t forget that there’s a little girl in a red coat; collateral damage to an assistant to the oldest sibling; and a raft of other actors who look like they’re involved, including the Notaire and Gamache’s god-father. Whatever you do, make sure you read the last pages, in which Rosa comes into her own.  

Sara Paretsky, Shell Game, HarperCollins     longevity of series writers never ceases to have its moments, and Sara Paretsky’s characters certainly have some magic about their resistance to aging: this is the 19th V.I. Warshawski novel, and the latest of her adventures. It’s also far from the first time I read one of her novels, which have had their ups and downs. Warshawski first appeared in 1982, a feisty left-wing Private Investigator and recovering lawyer, going down Chicago’s mean streets like other P.I.s who are not themselves mean, with a recognizable combination of intelligence and imagination; courage and physical fitness; local knowledge and tenacity. What is hard to recall now is the effect of rewriting the old American scenario with a woman at the centre, a highly-educated Chicagoan with deep roots in the city’s old-immigrant Catholic community. On the other hand, Lotty Herschel and her family are (mainly) doctors in community service. Mr Contreras still lives downstairs, still takes the dogs for exercise, and still tells V.I. what’s up.

            Paretsky was a pioneer. She is not the dysfunctional self-abusing Private Eye of legend, and her drinking is well under control. Over the years V.I.’s background, family, and friends have done something to fill out her temper and disappointments in love. She keeps any number of balls in the air. In this book one of her nieces has disappeared and the other one has come to V. I. for help.

            So Warshawski is not the dysfunctional self-abusing Private Eye of legend, and her drinking is well under control. She has family, she has friends, and the respect of many of her long-serving clients. Over the years V.I.’s family and friends have done what they could to fill out her temper and disappointments in love. American P.I.’s are seldom celebrated for their steady relationships and child-rearing success, but for a woman raised in Catholic South Chicago, there are constant humiliations in being repeatedly told that she will never be able to hold a man. Although, like many of her ilk, she has suffered physical punishments which would have scarred and crippled a lesser mmm person, she still scrubs up well enough to attract attention. There are men in her life, but her life is not the motor of the novels: the important developments arise from fashions within crime fiction, themselves reacting to changes social, political, and criminal.

            Like many other crime writers, Paretsky began with innovative imitation. Her female P.I. was a lawyer disillusioned with the corruptions of the Chicago police and criminal justice system, autonomous, and with a vision of social justice which distinguished her from the male Private Dicks’ characteristically idiosyncratic morality. And there is no question but that she knows a lot about corruption in the Second City. V. I. Warshawski is nominally a specialist in financial fraud, but there is not a lot of techno-wizardry in her old-fashioned shoe-leather hunt for criminals. For a while the novels veered between familiar kinds of series plots and ambitions to treat social issues of moment in Chicago, and elsewhere in the U.S., though after a time they began to seem tired, especially as other writers in turn imitated and innovated upon Paretsky’s breakthrough. Then, with Tunnel Vision (1994), and Hard Time (1999) that original fire returned, with a thriller-like concern for money, power, and political corruption. This novel is her at her lightning best, and it assumes that readers accept the every-young characters who reappear in every book. Shell Game has her strengths full-on. One of them is what crime writers do so well: in the first few pages we meet the DACA kids—those are the children brought illegally into the United States. These allusions have filled any number of Paretsky’s books, and we are the more grateful for her work in telling her readers something about the U.S. now. She writes of neighbourhoods that are nervous when white people who might be immigration officers seem to be on surveillance. There’s more than a nod at the forests into which V.I. and Lotty’s nephew find themselves called by the police. V.I. reflects, ‘I felt a flush of shame, shame that I was inspecting people as if they were specimens, shame that my government could create such fear in people.’

                        Paretsky has never been afraid of implausibilities, and this novel has its share. In the world of crime fiction, she exploits the double-time scheme in which the years pass but the characters remain more or less static. Warshawski herself remains the familiar hot-tempered maverick. She was that kind of internal migrant whose education has lifted her from her social origins, with all the discomfort–but none of the confusion–that that so often creates. Unlike so many of crime fiction’s socially challenged male P.I.s, she is rooted in a social web. Not only has Paretsky evoked–and celebrated–the multiplicity of Chicago’s neighbourhoods, its old and new immigrants, its essential tragedy of race relations, but these years of America’s financial and political decadence have rekindled her passion for social justice with a vengeance. More positively, the socially mobile Warshawski belongs to that American dream also exemplified by the Obamas–but, as becomes the woman who is not herself mean, Warshawski remains dissident, and as tough on the causes of crime as she is on criminals.

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