Mystery lovers get a double shot of love Saturday as two of the hottest mystery writers in North America visit Schuler Books &
Music in the Meridian Mall for back-to-back presentations. Both are so
good it wouldn’t be fair to pit them against each other.
You have to say North America because Louise Penny hails
from a village near Montreal while her fellow author Stephanie Pintoff
is from New York City. Both writers focus their stories in their own
backyards: Pintoff skips
back to the beginning of the 20th century in her historical mystery,
while Penny’s atmospheric tales are set in a contemporary Canadian
village much like the one in which she lives.
Pintoff has written three mysteries featuring
criminologist Alistair Sinclair and detective Simon Ziele, who use the
nascent art of criminal science (including profiling) to solve their
In her most recent book, “Secret of the White Rose,” the
two face a diabolical killer who is murdering Sinclair’s associates. A
chief suspect is an anarchist who was once a close friend of Ziele’s.
Further complicating the investigation is an anarchist movement, which is threatening the roots of American democracy.
Pintoff, a lawyer in her previous career, said it’s
erroneous to think that all the breakthroughs in criminal science came
out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Quantico headquarters in
“The reality is it was much closer to the start of the
20th century, when different disciplines began putting together their
collective knowledge to solve crimes,” she said.
The Edgar Award-winning author has that time period of
history down pat: the overcrowded tenements, the workers bristling
against vile working conditions and low pay, the nativists decrying the
immigrants, etc. The smells and sounds of New York streets are all
portrayed against a backdrop of anarchists plotting to overthrow the
country, one bomb at a time.
Even though Pintoff admits to “taking some liberties,” she
said she researches her books by reading the newspapers of the period.
Although she stresses the importance of being historically
accurate, Pintoff said, “I always tried to look first at history
through the character level.” As a result, her chief characters are to
Pintoff said she decided to write mysteries since she was “addicted to them.”
“They give me the most pleasure,” she said.
Pintoff is passing that experience along to her readers.
Her writing is clear, crisp and imaginative and her characters are well
developed and complex, but not without flaws, which make them
interesting and, more important, human.
Penny creates similar characters in her eight-book series
that features chief inspector Armand Gamache, who definitely prefers
brains over brawn.
In “A Trick of Light,” Gamache finds himself in familiar
surroundings but once again everything is not how it seems. A central
character’s alcoholism and its debilitating impact on personal
relationships make the case even more complicated.
To Gamache and his close friend and second-in-command,
Jean Guy Beauvoir, being back in Three Pines is like a flashback; it
wasn’t long ago that another murder drew them there.
As Gamache investigates the case, it becomes like a
painting in which what you see depends on how you look at. Stand in one
place, and you look into the painting; from another location it jumps
out at you.
Also woven intricately throughout the investigation are
the precepts of Alcoholics Anonymous and the importance of forgiveness
and the acceptance of who you are.
Having been clean and sober for nearly two decades, Penny
knows of what she writes. Her writing demystifies AA and its importance
in her life. She has written that if she had to choose between being
sober or being a writer, sobriety would win.
Penny also is clearly at home writing about art, another backdrop to the book.
“Until I found my husband (of 17 years) I wasn’t
passionate about art,” she says. “He was absolutely drawn to art, and I
am, too, but I can never feel as passionate about it. I love looking at
him looking at art and seeing his pleasure.”
Penny said she especially liked weaving art into her most
recent book since “all people who create have the same vulnerability and
Although Penny worked nearly two decades as a journalist
in Montreal, she said when her husband retired they moved to a small
“We were yearning for two things,” she says, “belonging, and a quiet place in the bright sunshine.”
These are almost the exact lines Penny uses to describe
Three Pines, except that in the book deep shadows are thrown off by the
The new book opens at a Montreal art exhibit that features
an old friend of Gamache from Three Pines. His spouse, daughter,
son-in-law and Beauvoir join him. It would be like a reunion, except
tthat here are those who are not so happy to see Gamache. Not long ago
Garmache and Beauvoir solved a murder in the small community, but not
before Gamache’s earlier investigation had imprisoned the wrong man for
In less than a chapter Penny skillfully sets the scene for
another murder in the small village and Gamache is pulled back into the
maelstrom and shadows of Three Pines.
Mystery readers will especially love Penny’s ability to
incorporate the style of the old mistresses and masters of English
mysteries, including P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and, of course, Arthur
Conan Doyle, without being heavy-handed. As a result Penny’s mysteries
caress you like a cashmere glove.
Louise Penny and Stephanie Pintoff
3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10. Schuler Books & Music. 1982 Grand River Ave., Okemos. Free. (517) 349-8840