Andy's Reviews > The Brutal Telling

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
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Aug 05, 10

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 a couple of big 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. And a shift of twenty-seven is the same as a shift of one. Etc. If you want to really complicate it by adding reverse shifts, there are still only fifty possibilities. A person could try all fifty by hand in less than an hour, as often one can determine that the amount of shift isn't right in the span of three or four letters.

Furthermore, a real crytographic expert would have software that would try all of the basic codes (and many not-so-basic codes) in a manner of seconds and would print out all possible solutions. (No doubt the shortness of the coded message would result in multiple apparent solutions.)

Penny tries to cloak this problem by adding an unnecessary layer of complexity -- the expert says that some people will use a "key" to indicate the length of shift. I.e., 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.

A writer could make the argument that readers always need to suspend disbelief to a certain degree, and that most readers don't know about code-breaking or ambigrams. I would agree with respect to ambigrams, but not the Caesar's shift. Many people were exposed to codes as children. And if kids learn any codes whatsoever they're going to learn the Caesar's shift. That's how simple it is.

Therefore, trying to pass off a Caesar's shift as a nearly-unbreakable code is like trying to depict a soap bubble as the work of aliens.

The biggest problem with The Brutal Telling's code-breaking element is that it is completely unnecessary. When the code is broken, it tells us nothing. The reader ends up angry that so much time was wasted on it. But if it had been relevant, surely Penny could have talked to a real cryptographic expert and been hooked up with a code that met her needs.

The other big flaw is that we are supposed to believe that a couple of business owners would be concerned about a new business opening, when that new business would not compete with their own business in any way. On the surface the businesses seem similar, but then we eventually realize that one business is akin to a bicycle shop and the other is akin to a Mercedes dealership. This should have been obvious to the owners of the "bike shop" from the very start -- and everyone else in town, for that matter -- but apparently it isn't.

Now, please don't take all of this complaining as a negative review. I enjoyed this book and plan to read the rest of the series. Just be prepared to overlook these two problems and you'll be fine.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 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.


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