Fresh Blood

Name: Stef Penney

Title of Book: The Tenderness of Wolves

'This is a sweeping, panoramic saga of epic proportions.'

It is Canada, 1867. A local trader, Laurent Jammet, has been found murdered in his cabin. This causes many ripples within the small community of Caulfield. At the same time, Mrs. Ross’ son - who was close to Jammet - has disappeared. It is not long before rumours abound that Francis Ross could possibly be the murderer on the run. His mother will not hear such things and prays that her son returns home safely and with an alibi. When Francis does not turn up, Mrs. Ross, whose husband, Angus, does not care for the lad, decides to take matters into her own hands.

The men from the Hudson’s Bay Company have arrived to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Soon, a man who was caught at Jammet’s cabin has been arrested for the murder. Mrs. Ross believes he is innocent and that this man can lead her to her son. When he escapes they start a long journey where each discovers many secrets about the other, as well as about themselves.

This is a sweeping, panoramic saga of epic proportions. It is a novel, not only about finding the perpetrator of the crime that opens the novel, but of self-discovery. The novel is a wonderful, multi-layered story told from the viewpoints of different settlers in the town of Caulfield. Everyone seems to have something to grieve about - whether they are the ones embarking on the long journey or being left behind.

The writing is remarkably accomplished and deftly manages to make all the characters that populate this novel completely three-dimensional. Penney has allowed us to see people’s thoughts, emotions and their insecurities whilst making them all very human and believable. You could probably not simply class The Tenderness of Wolves as a ‘crime’ novel. It is a tale about the events that take over a knot of people with simple lives and brings them a sense of adventure and purpose. With that feeling of danger, it also brings them an understanding of things that they have taken for granted for years.

This subtle and superb novel brings the freezing landscape of the Canadian woods to such vivid life that the landscape itself becomes a strong character within the story. Once you have dived into the tiny, closeted world of Caulfield and it’s forbidding surroundings, you will certainly not wish to leave.

I suggest you put the coffee on and light the fire, because you will need all the warmth you can get when you journey out into the frozen wilderness with the determined Mrs. Ross. This is definitely a book not to be rushed, but to be savoured like a mature, fine wine.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Would you put your writing under the banner of ‘crime’?
I’ll leave that up to other people! I suppose it is in a way – it starts with a murder, and the quest to solve that crime draws the reader (hopefully) through the story, but by the scenic route, not the motorway.
2) Have you always had ideas to write a crime novel or a novel with a crime element?
Absolutely not. I’m a screenwriter who was never interested in writing novels at all – until I was broke and unemployed, and thought I’d give it a try. I had three characters and a setting, and it felt right to use the murder mystery device as a skeleton to give shape to what I already had. I love reading crime and I crave a good story – I don’t think I would ever write a ‘psychological’ novel.
3) Your novel is set in Canada in 1867. You have never visited Canada or the area you place your novel. What influenced you to take such a big gamble and place your story in a country you do not know?
Yes, it was a bit of a risk! But I didn’t really have a choice: I had written a screenplay where the two main characters (Mr and Mrs Ross, if you haven’t been introduced!) ended up emigrating to Canada in the 1850s as part of the Highland Clearances. So, there they were, in Canada – and I always knew I would go back to them in some form. I deliberately fictionalised the geography, and I also felt the history was a bit of a safety net – no one was ever going to say ‘I’ve just come back from 1867 and you got it completely wrong!’
4) You describe very well the harshness of the winters they can have in Canada. Did you have to do a lot of research about the area and way of living in those days?
I’ve long been fascinated by cold climates, and had read voraciously about the history of polar exploration, so in a way it didn’t seem that foreign to me. Because I couldn’t travel for a long time (I was agoraphobic, like the main character in the novel) I devoured travel literature as some sort of compensation. Then I researched 19th century Canada in the British Library, where there is fantastic material – much of it by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company – often very well-written and incredibly detailed. I’m hugely in their debt. I also owe a great deal to some more recent writers who get classed as ‘natural history’ but are really so much more – I’m thinking particularly of Barry Lopez and Wallace Stegner, who both weave climate, landscape, anecdote, history and philosophy in an extraordinary, eye-opening way.
5) I loved the different strands of the story showing the multitude of relationships amongst the dwellers in the small town of Caulfield. This was very well shown in the book. What made you concentrate on the people of Caulfield instead of just being focused solely on the murder of Laurent Jammet
Having written screenplays where you have to be brutally concise, it was a complete joy to be able to play with more complexity, and the more research I did, the more stories and layers I wanted to weave in. And really, Jammet’s murder is a bit of a red herring. I’m more interested in people’s feelings about their lives than in mechanical plot twists. I was also fascinated by the possibilities of having multiple narrators who shed different light on the events and the other characters (and their honesty) – that was something I didn’t know I was going to do when I began, but it just happened.
6) Would you describe yourself as a Crime fan and, if so, which authors do you most admire?
Definitely. I really have to force myself to pick up a book that doesn’t promise some bloodshed! I love James Ellroy, especially his early books, because of the way he combines complex plots with vivid, passionate characters – and his dialogue takes your breath away. And I’m a big fan of Kirsten Ekman, the Swedish thriller writer, who writes with laconic wit and conjures up an amazingly powerful sense of landscape. I like Henning Mankel and Qiu Xiaolong too – all writers who tell me something I don’t already know. Oh, and I carry Peter O’Donnell’s novels around with me like a talisman. ‘Modesty Blaise’ is pretty much my Bible – make of that what you will.
7) What type of crime novel do you prefer? Series or standalone?
I’d have to say standalone. Something that creates its own world – and when it’s over, there’s nothing more to be said.
8) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
Something that pushes genre boundaries – either ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ by Iain Pears, or ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ by Peter Hoeg.
9) Without giving away the ending, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
I don’t think I’m really into plot twists – if something comes too out of the blue then it’s not satisfying. A good ending to me is one that goes all the way and wrings every last drop of juice out of the story premise. Although, having said that, my next book is going to feature a real humdinger of a plot twist – if I can bring it off, that is!
10) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
I love Forties noir, ‘The Big Sleep’ for example; but for adapting a book that I’d thought was unfilmable, I’d have to say ‘L.A. Confidential’. Everything about it – cast, design, music, dialogue – clicked into place, and the way the writers short-circuited that massive plot was sheer genius.