Andy's Reviews > The Brutal Telling

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
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Jan 15, 2015

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bookshelves: own, first-reads, reviewed
Read in December, 2009

[This review is based on an Advanced Reader Copy won through the Goodreads First Reads program.:]

The Brutal Telling is an enjoyable, quiet mystery, with two major flaws.

To repeat what some others have said, this is a nice small town mystery with interesting characters. Once the story pulled me in, I "couldn't put it down." (Okay, I could put it down. But I was always eager to return to it.)

You can read more about the plot and the characters and the writing in other reviews. I want to address what I saw as the book's biggest flaws.

The first flaw is more of a sin. It's the same sin committed by Dan Brown in Angels & Demons. That sin is the sin of taking something commonplace and pretending that it's remarkable. Dan Brown committed this sin with ambigrams -- stylized words/phrases that read the same upside down. He presents them as though they are rare or impossible, whereas if you search the internet you can find ambigrams galore.

Louise Penny commits this sin with the Caesar shift, which is one of the simplest codes, but which the cryptographic EXPERT in Brutal Telling says is one of the most difficult codes to break! The Caesar's shift encodes a message by shifting each letter by a fixed amount. With a shift of one, A becomes B, B becomes C, etc. So "CAT" becomes "DBU". The crytographic expert says that the Caesar's shift is so hard to break because the amount of the shift can be anything. Um, no. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. If you shift by twenty-six, you're right back to where you started. So in fact the Caesar's shift is quite an easy code to crack. Try a shift of one, and if that doesn't produce anything readable from the first few coded letters, then try a shift of two. And so on. In just a few minutes you would have tried all possibilities.

Penny tries to mask this problem by adding an unnecessary layer of complexity -- the cryptographic expert tells her that some people will use a "key" to indicate the length of shift. For example, if the key is a seven-letter word, then the shift is seven. So then Gamache and other characters spend an inordinate amount of time trying to think of keys, when, as I've said, all they need to do is run through every shift from one to twenty-five.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that the code-breaking subplot is completely unnecessary. When the code is broken, it tells us nothing.

The other big flaw is that we are supposed to believe that a couple of business owners would be concerned about the opening of a new business when that new business is in no way a threat to their own. Sure, the businesses are similar on the surface, just as a bicycle shop and a Mercedes dealership both deal in transportation solutions. But does a new Mercedes dealership in any way threaten a bicycle shop? Does someone say "gee, I was going to buy a new bike, but instead I'm going to get a Mercedes"? That the new business was no threat to the existing business should have been obvious to everyone in this story -- especially the owners of the "bike shop".

Now, please don't take all of this complaining as a negative review. I enjoyed this book and plan to read more from this series. Just be prepared to overlook these two flaws and you'll be fine.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez Thank you for the information regarding the code. I didn't know that.


message 2: by StS (new) - rated it 3 stars

StS I totally agree .. I was thinking the book should be at least 100 pages shorter. Too much unneeded puffery.


Jeni Perfect review. And I agree totally about the Caesar's shift. A lot of wasted pages & energy over fluff.


Mary Ellen Thanks for that comment: after all the jabber about the code, the "revelation" was a big yawn.


Jacque The book was delightful until the end -- I also found the "revelation" to be anti-climactic and unsatisfying.


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