Review: The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2015.

Summary: Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted when Peter Morrow fails to return as agreed a year after his separation from Clara and they embark on a search taking them to a desolate corner of Quebec.

[Note: This review assumes readers who have read previous books in the series. While I try hard to avoid spoilers for the current book, some information here might “spoil” reading of previous books.]

Armand and Reine Marie have settled into what is hoped to be a peaceful and joyous retirement in Three Pines. Each morning, Gamache goes, sits on a bench above the village, pulls out a slim book, reads only as far as a bookmark, and gazes on the village. Clara Morrow has begun joining him and it is clear there is something on her mind. Finally she asks, and she dares to break into his peace, telling him that Peter had not come home. A year before, when it was clear he was deeply jealous of Clara’s growing success that was eclipsing his, she asked him to leave. For a year. When he returned, they would decide where the marriage went. On the day he was supposed to return, he did not come. No letter or contact. Days turned into weeks. No Peter and no word. Not like Peter.

Armand agrees to help, joined by his son-in-law, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna, the bookstore owner who has become his counselor. Slowly a picture emerges, in fact, a number, sent to Bean, who we met in an earlier novel. They are a veritable “dog’s mess,” painted by Peter, but unlike anything he’s ever painted. They reflect a long journey through Europe to a strange garden in Dumfries, Scotland, and a remote location outside of Baie St Paul in the Charlevoix region. Between those two locations, he had visited charming old professor Massey in Toronto, withdrew money from his bank in Montreal and disappeared.

How to understand the paintings and to make sense of Peter’s journey occupies much of the book. It seems that a controversial professor recruited and later dismissed by Massey, Norman or “No Man,” had created an artist commune or cult in Baie St. Paul some years back around the idea of the “tenth muse,” which was believed to be the muse of artists. Was Peter, whose career was eclipsed seeking the muse in some kind of crazed effort to regain eminence over Clara.

The foursome embark on a journey, led by Clara, not Gamache, at her insistence. They do not find Peter, or No Man, but find clues that take them to Tabaquen, a remote and desolate village along the St. Lawrence in the far eastern reaches of Quebec . The question is what will they find when they get there?

Throughout the book two themes recur: the balm of Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul and the idea of “a brave man in a brave country.” Will they find a sin-sick soul, corrupted by jealousy? Will they find one who has found balm, and become a brave man in a brave country? Will Peter find that what he has sought to the ends of Canada was something that was already his in the love and creativity of Clara? Or will he be a different man, maddened with jealousy, driven by a quest for a mythical muse to bring a fresh spark of creativity to his art?

The story turns on jealousy, the mystery of artistic creativity, and perspective, centered around both a painting that reveals different things depending on how it is turned and the identity of a mad figure in a yearbook drawing from the art school. Perspective will also figure in the emerging picture of what they will find in Tabaquen.

Unlike other books thus far, this has no side plots. From a peaceful beginning, it develops methodically, but not without its humorous moments, to an edge-of-the-seat ending. Savor every moment. They all matter.

Review: How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Gamache #9), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2013.

Summary: The murder of the last Ouellet quintuplet, a former client and friend of Myrna’s brings Gamache back to Three Pines which serves as a hidden base of operations as Sylvain Francoeur’s efforts to destroy Gamache comes to a head.

Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur as taken away Gamache’s right hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, transferred out his department’s best agents, filling their slots with the indifferent or corrupt. Is it simply the fact that Gamache had arrested former Chief Superintendent Arnot? Or is there, as Gamache suspects, something more going on?

Amid the increasing pressure on Gamache, he continues to do his job. And that job takes him back to Three Pines. A former client who had become a friend of Myrna Landers was supposed to come for a Christmas visit but fails to turn up. Gamache investigates and finds her dead in her home, killed by a head blow from a lamp as she was packing. One of the most startling discoveries was that she was Constance Ouellet, the last of the Ouellet quintuplets, considered a true miracle at their birth, exploited by a doctor who had not even been at the delivery, and used by the government to create a fairy-tale story. Who would have a motive to kill her? It turns out that Constance has left clues, unrecognized by those around her.

The murder allows Gamache, through a combination of misdirection and shrewd preparation, to turn Three Pines into a base of operations to ferret out what Francoeur is trying to do, along with Yvette Nichol, who has been spending years in the basement of the Surete learning to listen, and Jerome and Assistant Superintendent Therese Brunel. Jerome has been covertly infiltrating the Surete’s systems until he found a name that scared him. It’s time for the Brunels to flee, ostensibly to Vancouver, but actually to Three Pines.

One problem. When they find what they are looking for, they will be found, jeopardizing the whole village. It comes down to who will outmaneuver who? And the wild card is Beauvoir, who knows Gamache and in his drug addiction is tied to Francoeur.

One other piece. A woman in the Transportation Ministry, Audrey Villeneuve was found dead at the base of the most heavily-traveled bridge in Montreal. Her car was on the bridge and her death was ruled as a suicide. The book opens with her distraught drive onto the bridge. Let’s just say it’s not irrelevant.

The story line leaves us wondering at times if Gamache is paranoid, seeing conspiracies where there are none and becoming unhinged. Does he love and then leave as Beauvoir believes, or is there love that persists even when denied? And was inviting Nichol a good idea? Is this an one of Gamache’s redemption efforts that will put them all at risk? Penny quotes a poem, “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, with these words “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” In this novel, we see in Gamache who believes in the foolish wisdom that to risk loving and trusting is the crack that lets the light in. The question is whether this will prevail over the earthly wisdom of power. Many lives and a hidden village hang in the balance.

Review: The Beautiful Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #8), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013.

Summary: While solving a case involving the murder of a prior in a remote monastery, Gamache must confront his arch-nemesis Chief Superintendent Sylvain Françoeur.

Things must be quiet in Three Pines. No murders there to solve. Instead, Gamache and Beauvoir are sent to a remote monastery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, of an order, The Gilbertines, thought to have died out. St. Gilbert’s distinction was his loyalty for Thomas à Becket. In consequence, the Gilbertines were chased across Europe, and a group, disguised as workers, find their way to a remote part of Canada, surviving for four centuries.

Two dozen monks led by an Abbot and a Prior who is also their choir director maintain a self-sustaining community and come together to sing the most beautiful Gregorian chant heard anywhere in the world. Gamache knows. He has heard the one recording of their chants that took the world by storm.

And now the Prior is dead, murdered by blows to the head, curled in a ball by the wall of the Abbot’s garden. It can be accessed only through a bookcase in the Abbot’s office. The only ones who typically do so are the Abbot, the Prior, and the Abbot’s secretary, Brother Simon, who had found the Prior.

Concealed in the Prior’s sleeves was a piece of parchment with musical notation in the character of chant, but unlike any chant, and with non-sensical words. What did all this mean? And how was it connected to the Prior’s death. And who of the other twenty-three brothers, seemingly one in song and community, did this? And what is the source of the particular beauty of the singing of these brothers, the beautiful mystery?

Gamache and Beauvoir set out to unravel all this in their patient, methodical fashion. They discover a deeply divided community, reflecting a divide between the Abbot and Prior, once the deepest of friends. The Prior wants to make another recording, and for the monks to be permitted to break their vow of silence to tour. The Abbot refuses even though a number of the monks oppose him. Even though one of them has shown him that the foundations of the monastery are crumbling and may not last another ten years. Another recording could save the building. But the Abbot fears it could destroy the order.

Amid the efforts to solve the murder, the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté, Sylvain Françoeur, arrives, ostensibly to take over the investigation. He has it in for Gamache, and has come to attack Gamache and Beauvoir at the points of their vulnerabilities. In Françoeur, Penny has created a formidable and subtle villain, one we love to hate.

Some of the promotional copy speaks of “the divine, the human, and the cracks in between” and this is indeed a theme running through this mystery. The transcendent beauty of the chants, even with a killer among them, captivates Gamache. These monks believe what they sing, have come to this place to sing what they believe. Yet they are human. Twenty-three distinct men. The cracks between have riven their community, in as great a danger as the walls of their monastery. But amid the noble work of the Sûreté to execute justice, there are cracks as well. Obviously between Gamache and Françoeur, but also between Gamache and Beauvoir, stemming from the ambush attack and the traumas that have never healed. There are the cracks within as well.

There is also a crack between faith and secularity. The tension between faithfulness to God and the vows of the order and the pull of secular fame and the money it could bring is one crack. There is also a contrast between the faith of the monks and the officers of the Sûreté who all have walked away from the church. The tension is greatest in Gamache, who prayed the last rites over his fallen officers amid a gun battle, who is captivated by the chants, and yet…. In the last words of dialogue, Gamache is asked, “Would you like me to hear your confession?” to which he replies, “Not just yet, I think, mon pere.” I’m intrigued with what Penny will do with this.

Review: A Trick of the Light

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Gamache #7), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2012.

Summary: The vernissage for Clara’s art show is a stunning success with glowing reviews only to be spoiled when the body of her estranged childhood friend is found in her flowerbed.

This was Clara Morrow’s night, the vernissage (a private preview of an art show) for her solo show at the Musee d’Art. A night for her friends, for art critics, and art dealers. The reactions suggest a stunning success. Gamache is there studying a painting of Ruth as an aged Virgin Mary, bitter with a hint of light in her eye. What does it mean? He discusses it with Quebec’s most distinguished art dealer, utterly taken by the picture. Later that night, an equally celebratory party takes place at the Morrows, attended even by Fortin, the art dealer who snubbed her after she challenged his homophobic slurs.

She wakens to savor the triumph on her terrace the next morning when some approaching friends suddenly stop. There is something in her Clara’s flower bed. Or rather someone in a bright red dress. Someone Clara knows. Lying dead with a broken neck. The childhood friend who took her under her wing, and later manipulatively controlled her. Both were art students. When Clara asserted her art instincts against her friend’s advice, the relationship was breached, later irreparably broken with a vicious review from her former friend, Lillian Dyson.

Vicious, career-ending reviews became Lillian’s specialty. Then she disappeared for many years in New York. Years of descent into alcoholism until a recent return to Quebec. One of the critical questions revolving around her is, can a person truly change for the better?

The list of suspects connected with her only begins with Clara. Other artists whose careers were shattered. A chief justice and an AA sponsor. Art dealers. Nearly everyone at the party at Clara’s. Gamache’s team of Beauvoir and LaCoste must unravel not only who killed Lillian but how she even found Three Pines and Clara’s party.

Like other mysteries in this series, there are multiple layers to the plot connected to the murder of the hermit in book five and the ambush of Gamache’s team and the near deaths of Beauvoir and Gamache in book six. The video of the ambush that had been leaked continues to cause trouble. Gamache wonders who really leaked it, not accepting that a hacker did it. Beauvoir seems in deeper trouble, divorced, using painkillers, sleeping poorly, watching the video repeatedly, and wrestling with demons and tempted to an affair that could destroy his relationship with Gamache. Gamache knows Beauvoir is in trouble. He doesn’t realize that it is his trouble, too.

The story explores the secrets characters keep, the ways they can fester, and how lies conceal when liberation beckons in telling the truth. Secrets that threaten Peter and Clara. Secrets that threaten Beauvoir and Gamache. Then there are those clear-eyed enough to see through the lies–Myrna the bookseller and Ruth, who never fails to amaze.

Penny also explores the question of forgiveness. When is it right to seek forgiveness? Can we truly forgive? Will we forgive? Several characters, including those wounded by Lillian’s reviews face these questions.

Then there is that dot of light in the painting of Ruth. Is it the light of hope or a mere trick of the light? What is it in hard-bitten old Ruth that she sits on a bench feeding the birds and gazing up at the sky looking for Rosa the duck to return?

Louise Penny seems to grow in each book in her ability to weave these profound elements into a complicated, multi-layered plot with evolving characters, centered around Gamache, so insightful yet also vulnerable to what he does not see, so able to command love and loyalty, as well as deep jealousies and resentments. Already has me looking forward to book eight and those to follow!

Review: Bury Your Dead

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Gamache #6), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010.

Summary: Gamache and Beauvoir are on leave after an attempt to rescue an agent goes terribly wrong. As each faces their own traumas they get caught up in murder investigations in Quebec City and Three Pines.

Armand Gamache and Jean Guy Beauvoir are wounded and desperately in need of healing in both body and mind. Young Agent Paul Morin, who we met in the previous novel, had been kidnapped while his partner was killed. The kidnapper, on an untraceable phone, tells Gamache that Morin is strapped to a bomb which will detonate in 24 hours, or if he and Gamache stop talking to each other. While Gamache talks, the team, with a critical contribution by Yvette Nichol, discovers both Morin’s location, and a much bigger plot in which this is a diversion. Gamache leads the raid to rescue Morin, which turns out to be an ambush. Agents die, and Beauvoir is wounded as is Gamache, nearly fatally, as he rescues a downed agent. He recovers enough to lead the cortege, but their wounds, their memories of the ambush and the loss of fellow officers remain to be healed. These are among the dead to be grieved and buried and the tale of the kidnapping, desperate investigation, and fatal raid are gradually unfolded over the course of the novel as each remembers fragments and re-tells them.

Gamache has gone to stay in Quebec City with his old Chief, Emile, who had mentored him. It is the time of the Winter Carnival. To distract himself, Gamache and his German shepherd Henri go to the Literary and Historical Library, an archive maintained by the English community amid a sea of French-speaking Quebecois. He spends time investigating a historical battle until–you guessed it–a murder happens in the basement of the library. Augustin Renaud, considered by many an old crank seeking the burial place of Champlain, Quebec’s founder, had asked to speak to the Lit and His (as it was called) board and was refused. The next morning, the phones were out of order, and the repairman found the cause. A dead Renaud had been buried in the basement, cutting the phone line. The local inspector asks Gamache to assist, with the board as prime suspects, and a growing trail of evidence that pointed toward the possible burial place of Champlain. Meanwhile, dead of night walks with Henri and conversations with Emile don’t, of themselves heal Gamache but create the space where he can.

Meanwhile, Beauvoir has returned to Three Pines. He and Gamache had arrested the murderer of a hermit hidden deep in a forest near Three Pines, as told in the previous novel. Yet persistent letters to Gamache of a villager with one question, lead him to ask Beauvoir, ostensibly there to recover, to make sure they had arrested and convicted the right suspect. Beauvoir, initially convinced that they had the right person in custody, begins to uncover evidence and question assumptions, leading to doubts of his own, and the disturbing possibility that the murderer is still in Three Pines. Meanwhile, the most unlikely relationship between him and Ruth Zardo, continues to unfold as Beauvoir processes his own trauma.

Penny masterfully weaves narratives of the search and rescue attempt that went so horribly wrong with the “informal” investigations in Quebec City and Three Pines. Will Gamache find the murderer of the buried Renaud? Will he unravel the mystery that has stumped so many of the burial place of Champlain, and what does the Lit and His have to do with it? Will Beauvoir satisfy the doubts he and Gamache have, or find the real murderer of the hermit? And will any of this help the two of them heal and let the dead lay buried?

One glimpses in Penny’s account what post-traumatic stress can be like for peace officers when their worst nightmare comes true. Penny portrays the wisdom of friends (or whatever you might call it with Ruth) who create the safety where trauma can be faced without trying to pry it open. And we glimpse two men struggling and willing to face the possibility that they had subjected the wrong person to the pain of arrest, trial, and imprisonment. Having survived an ordeal that went terribly wrong, we see a remarkable quality in these two men, the facing of mistakes and the growing and learning from them.

Review: A Rule Against Murder

A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache #4), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2008.

Summary: The Gamache’s getaway to a peaceful lodge is interrupted, first by an unloving family reunion, and then by the death of one of the family, crushed under a statue. Meanwhile, the naming of a child forces Gamache to face his own family history.

Manoir Bellechasse is one of the most exclusive and peaceful getaways in Quebec, and just a stone’s throw from Three Pines. Armand and Reine Marie Gamache have come here for anniversaries for many years, reveling in the hospitality of Madame Dubois. Displaced by a family reunion of a demanding and unhappy family, they are once again in the smaller back room where they had spent their first visit to the auberge. They are treated by the family as “shopkeepers” who didn’t belong. They observe and befriend the strange child, Bean, whose gender is unknown. S/he is Mariannas’s child, a quirky single mom. There is Thomas, the seeming business success, Julia, perfect it seems in every way, but recovering from divorcing her husband, in prison for securities fraud. They talk disparagingly of “Spot and Clare” called the greediest of all. Given this, imagine the surprise of the Gamaches when they discover that Spot and Clare are Peter and Clara Morrow, artists from Three Pines who have become good friends. The family is together for their mother Irene, and their barely tolerated step-father, Bert Finney. The father, Charles Morrow had died some years earlier and would be remembered by the unveiling of a statue that Manoir Bellechasse agreed to give a home in exchange for a substantial gift.

The place to which they have come offers peace, attentive hospitality, and safety, away from the world’s troubles. Madame Dubois and her deceased husband turned an old hunting lodge into a premiere getaway. She remembers her husband in every corner of the inn. Pierre Patenaude is the maitre d’ and along with Chef Veronique are the two permanent residents, alongside Madame Dubois. Pierre oversees the wait staff, young people from all over English-speaking Canada to learn French, and the skills of serving and attending to the needs of guests. Most are trying to “find” themselves. One, Elliot from Vancouver, the same city as Julia, is the exception to the rest who are grateful for Pierre and Veronique’s attentions. He is determined to defy Pierre.

The statue of Charles is unveiled, surprising all with its expression of sadness. That night, the family’s ugliness unfolds in front of the Gamache’s. Julie throws a cup to the floor, crying out “Stop it, I’ve had enough.” and proceeds to eviscerate each of her siblings, including Peter, who she calls cruel and greedy. She concludes by looking around at all of them, and says “I know Daddy’s secret.” Overnight, a terrible storm hits. The next morning, Gamache is aroused from his breakfast reveries by screams, coming from the gardener, Colleen, who has found Julia crushed beneath the statue of her father, arms out as in an embrace.

The question is not only who could have done this but how. The heavy statue would be impossible to push off the pedestal. Furthermore, there were no marks on the pedestal. Even the sculptor has no explanation for this. Gamache, de Beauvoir, and LaCoste gather, and patiently unravel the stories of the family, and those who work at the inn. But “how” eludes them.

Meanwhile Gamache wrestles with his own family’s past, thrown in his face both by his son Daniel, and by the Finney family. His father had been a pacifist, and had been accused of lack of courage. This is brought up by the family in their anger and grief. But his son has gotten their first. The son wants to name their first child, if he is a boy, Honore’, Gamache’s father’s name. Because of the disgrace with which his father was regarded, Armand opposes this, at the risk of estranging his son.

Penny continues to develop Gamache, exploring the ways his father’s life, who he lost at eleven, shaped who he is. We also discover that Peter Morrow may be a more complicated character than we thought, the one other character in a previous murder that Gamache thought capable of becoming a murderer. The conversations between him and Gamache offer Peter the chance to expose the complications of his story.

After the intricate plot and tense climax involving Bean, Gamache sits with Bert Finney on the dock by the lake. Throughout the book, it was thought that Bert, an accountant was doing his sums. It turns out that he was, counting his blessings. He leaves us with a stunning piece of wisdom:

We’re all blessed and we’re all blighted, Chief Inspector,” said Finney. “Every day each of us does our sums. The question is, what do we count?”

Review: The Cruelest Month

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Gamache #3), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2007.

Summary: Gamache returns to Three Pines to solve a murder during a seance at the old Hadley House while forces within the Surete’ (and on his team) plot his downfall to avenge the Arnot case.

It’s April and Three Pines is coming to life. It seems that the greatest danger is getting between a mother bear and her cubs in the nearby woods. Then Jeanne Chauvet arrives at Gabri and Olivier’s bed and breakfast. She is a Wiccan and Gabri and Olivier convince her to hold a séance on Good Friday evening. Not much happens except that Monsieur Beliveau, the grocer, proposes doing a second séance at the old Hadley House, empty since the last murder associated with the house. Among those present are Odile Montmagny, Gilles Sandon, Monsieur Beliveau, Jeanne Chauvet, Hazel Smythe and her daughter Sophie, and Madeleine Favreau. Madeleine has only lived in Three Pines a few years, coming to stay with her schoolmate Hazel who always adored her after a divorce and a cancer diagnosis. Really, just about everyone seemed to adore her, save Odile who is jealous of her husband’s attraction to her. During the séance, there is a sudden thump, and when the light go on, Madeleine is dead with a look of terror on her face. Apparently not everyone adored Madeleine. Subsequent tests find a lethal dose of ephedra in her bloodstream. And gradually as the case unfolds, it emerges that all the above named had motive to wish her dead.

Gamache and his team are assigned the case. And despite her attitudes and suspicion that she is part of the conspiracy to bring down Gamache, he takes her on his team. Before his departure is good friend Michel Brebeuf warns him of the growing storm of the allies of Inspector Arnot, who Gamache pursued because of his corruption, violating the codes of loyalty in the Sûreté. About the time of a late winter storm in Three Pines, the storm breaks in the form of a series of news articles casting suspicions on Gamache and his children. In one of the more exciting finishes of a mystery, the two plots collide at the old Hadley House as Gamache’s revelation of Madeleine’s murderer is interrupted with the revelation of those conspiring against Gamache.

Penny continues to develop Peter and Clara Morrow and Ruth Zardo. Clara is absorbed in her painting, preparing for the visit of an art dealer. Peter, also an artist, helps her break through a “block” and the result is so stunning that he realizes that she has surpasses him, sowing a seed of jealousy. It will be interesting to see where Penny takes this. Zardo features principally as the guardian of two goslings, one she helped hatch, only to discover that she sealed its death by not allowing it to struggle out of its shell, a parable of loving too well.

Gamache’s self-possession (except for when his children are attacked), his lack of overweening ambition, and the affection he has not only for his wife but his team make him a study in leadership. Penny’s ability to continue to develop her characters and maintain a sense of suspense, even while continuing to unfold the beauties of Three Pines evidences her skill as a writer. I only wonder why they don’t tear down the old Hadley house. All this leaves me looking forward to the next…and the next. What a delightful thought to realize I have thirteen to go (and Louise Penny might right some more before I get there)!

Review: A Fatal Grace

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2006.

Summary: An unliked but aspiring author comes to Three Pines and is murdered in front of a crowd at a curling match yet no one sees how it happened.

CC de Poitiers has just published a book, Be Calm, a mishmash philosophy of enlightenment through the suppression of emotion, symbolized by the color white. She hopes to launch a whole line of fashions and accessories around this idea. Yet for one maintaining control of emotion, she manages to make herself hateful to everyone around her–her lover and photographer Saul, her husband Richard Lyon, her daughter, Crie, and the people of Three Pines, where the family has purchased the old Hadley home.

She manages to disrupt the holiday cheer of the village, first by brutally silencing her daughter’s beautiful singing in church on Christmas eve, and then by dying in front of everyone at a traditional curling match following a holiday breakfast. Only it wasn’t a natural death. It was murder by electrocution, when she stood up to straighten a lawn chair askew. Yet none of the witnesses saw anything, and an electrocution of this sort was difficult to achieve, requiring a number of improbable factors to coincide. Who did this, and how, and why? Several items become key pieces of evidence–an ornament of the three pines with the letter L inscribed, a discarded videotape with one section distorted from repeated pauses, and an old pendant of a screaming eagle.

Gamache is called in, his second case in Three Pines. He had been reading an unsolved case file of a homeless vagrant woman who had been strangled in Montreal. Seemingly unrelated, Gamache and his team will discover the two cases are connected. Gamache will also discover that an earlier effort, the Arnot affair, to deal with corruption in the Surete is not over, that there are maneuverings going on to bring him down. One sign of this was the assignment of Agent Yvette Nichol to his team unrequested after her disastrous performance the last time she was in Three Pines. One compensation is a young detective, Robert Lemieux, who seems a quick study and fits in well with the team.

Some of the finest writing comes in the conversations of Gamache with Emilie Longpre, one of the “Three Graces” painted by Clara Morrow, with evidence of a fourth, missing Grace. The three include her, “Mother” Bea Meyer and Kaye Thompson, friends through life. Emilie is not “L,” whose son died young and was remembered by her for a signature violin piece he’d learned. She had been moved by Crie’s singing, and when she heard CC’s attack on her, was troubled by her failure to come to the unusual girl’s defense.

It’s not all conversation. There are drives through blinding blizzards, the panic of being trapped in a burning house, and a dramatic rescue. There are flashbacks, as Gamache and Jean Guy visit the old Hadley house, which figured in the terrifying ending of the first novel.

Of course there is the wonderful cast of Three Pines, Gabri and Olivier, Peter and Clara Morrow, and the curmudgeonly poet, Ruth Zardo, whose “beer walks” each day are finally explained. For the uninitiated, there is also an introduction to curling, and the high drama of “clearing the house,” which came at the very moment CC was electrocuted.

This was the second of Penny’s Gamache novels, good enough to win an Agatha Award in 2007. One revels in reading a work with no one-dimensional characters but real people with histories, hopes and secret and not-so-secret wounds. What a joy to glimpse the comfortable, companionable relationship of Reine-Marie and Armand, so healthy and “adult.” And despite the fact that it is the site of so many murders, Penny’s description of Three Pines makes it one of the favorite places in fiction where people would love to live. I know I would.

Review: Still Life

still life

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005.

Summary: The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer.

Jane Neal was an elderly retired teacher, seemingly beloved by everyone in the secluded town of Three Pines, near the Quebec/US border. Everyone had heard she was an artist. Yet no one had been allowed beyond her kitchen or saw her work. That is, until she entered a piece into the local Arts Williamsburg show–a painting called Fair Day. At first the jurors thought it was a child’s drawing, but then felt there was a peculiar power to this piece. When Jane learns the painting was accepted, she invited all her friends to a party the night of the show opening, at her house–Olivier and Gabri, the gay couple who owned the Bistro, Myrna, the bookstore owner, Ruth Zardo, the brilliant and curmudgeonly poet, Clara and Peter, an artist couple, and Ben Hadley, a bachelor artist whose mother Timmer had recently died after a battle with cancer.

The next morning Jane was found dead in the forest by Ben Hadley. She died of an arrow through the heart, an arrow removed. And so Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team discover Three Pines. At first the investigation appears to indicate a hunting accident, perhaps from a hunter from away who thought he had spotted a deer. Then a troubled youth, or his father. The youth had been part of a group throwing manure from a flower bed at Olivier and Gabri, mocking them for being gay. Jane, on the morning before she died yelled at them to stop. Suspicion then turned to Yolande, Jane’s niece, who thought she would inherit Jane’s estate, or her uncouth husband or son. Eventually the focus turns to those in the cafe who had received Jane’s invitation. Among these people, all of whom seemed friends, and friends of Jane, there was a murderer.

While Gamache and his core team of Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle LaCoste work together as a well-oiled machine, a new agent, Yvette Nichol, the daughter of immigrants, tries so hard to succeed on her first assignment that she fails to listen to Gamache, follow through on leads, and asserts herself where she is not welcome. Gamache, after much effort, must send her home. Yet her insights do move the investigation forward, leaving us wonder if this is the last we will see of her.

I picked up one of the books of this series (#10), loved it, and was told by others who like Penny’s work that I had to go back to the beginning. So I have, and I would say it was worth it, and I intend to go on. Penny has created a lovable mix of townsfolk and an investigative team. Gamache is the classic detective, seemingly slow at times, who watches, listens, and thinks, and tries to cultivate these virtues in others, including Nichol. There is a winsome integrity about him, typified in his willingness to accept a suspension rather than arrest a man he considered innocent.

I have encountered many who wish Three Pines was a real town, a place of rural beauty and rich local culture. In this book, we learn the reason for the name. We also discover for all its beauty and seemingly serene atmosphere, it is hardly a place of still life. Penny reminds us that deep within people we think we know, there are hidden depths, and hidden secrets, that sometimes blossom into exquisite beauty, or the most terrible acts. In words quoted by Jane from W.H. Auden the night before she died:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Or in words on Jane Neal’s mirror, words Agent Nichol did not yet understand, “You’re looking at the problem.”

Review: The Nature of the Beast

the nature of the beast

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.

I never knew about Louise Penny until a year ago. One of the benefits of hosting an online book page is you learn of interesting authors you’ve not heard of. I’ve always loved classic crime fiction, and a great detective. I’ve been converted. Louise Penny’s works, and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache belong with this group.

I made a mistake and bought number eleven in the series, thinking it was the first. At this point, Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are retired in the idyllic village of Three Pines in eastern Quebec, a place seemingly forgotten by GPS systems. A local theatre group is rehearsing a play by an unnamed author, She Sat Down and Wept. Gamache and a number of friends, including his successor Isabel Lacoste and his son-in-law Jean Guy are relaxing in a local bistro when Laurent LePage, a nine year old boy prone to telling tall tales bursts in with another one of a huge gun in the forest with a picture of a scary woman being drawn by seven horses on it. No one believes him and Gamache drives him home to his parents, Al and Evie, aging hippies (he, a supposed draft dodger) with a farm on the edge of town.

The next day, Laurent goes missing, and is found dead off the side of the road, apparently having lost control of his bicycle, falling and striking his head on a rock–or so it seems to all but Gamache. Something is not right about the position of the body, but no one buys it. Then Gamache realizes something else–Laurent’s favorite stick (his “gun”) is nowhere to be found. A search in the woods for the “gun” leads to a much bigger gun, hidden in camouflage for years. On it, an engraving of the whore of Babylon, being drawn by seven furious steeds. At it’s base, Laurent’s favorite stick. Laurent was telling the truth, which he paid for with his life. And no one, not even Gamache had believed him. Actually someone did, the murderer.

The story gets more complicated as an elderly physicist and two intelligence agents (“file clerks”) who all had been investigating this weapon for years, descend on the quiet village and join in a quest to unravel the tale of its makers, seeking to find the plans for this weapon, which, in the wrong hands, could bring untold devastation and global conflict.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the author of the play is a wicked, sadistic serial murderer, John Fleming, with whom Gamache has a secret, and haunting connection that has been brought back to life. That is not his only connection to Three Pines. A batty old poet and kindly old grocer also carry haunting memories of this man.

Penny does so many things so well in this book. The setting is one I’ve seen a number of people say they would love to live in. The characters have depth, especially Gamache, but also Reine-Marie, Jean-Beauvoir, Lacoste, and even Ruth Zardo, the batty old poet. Gamache at this stage is deeply conflicted, wounded and weary from his efforts to cleanse the Sureté, yet ambivalent about really calling Three Pines and retired life the only life he will know. The unsolved murder of the boy he did not believe awakens all of this. Combine all this with superb writing and an ever-more suspenseful plot and you have all the ingredients of great crime fiction.

As I write, there are fifteen books in this series with a sixteenth due in September 2020. Temptation, thy name is Gamache! I suspect this won’t be the last review of a Louise Penny work you see here.