Review: The Brutal Telling

The Brutal Telling (Chief Inspector Gamache #5), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2009.

Summary: The body of an unknown man is found in the bistro of Gabri and Olivier, and Olivier is the chief suspect!

Olivier has been secretly visiting the cabin of a hermit living in a self-built cabin hidden in the woods near Three Pines. He brings groceries, shares stories, and is repaid with carvings and other items in the hermit’s possessions. The night after his last visit, the hermit’s body appears in the bistro jointly run by Gabri and Olivier, found by neighboring bookstore owner Myrna. The hermit has been brutally murdered with a skull-shattering blow to the back of the The hermit is unknown to anyone else in the village and when questioned, Olivier denies knowledge of him as well.

But how did the body get to the bistro? Who was the man? Why was he killed? And why is Olivier lying? These are questions Inspector Gamache and his team, joined by a young local officer eager to learn from Gamache, Paul Morin. It turns out that the body was placed in the bistro by the new owner of the Hadley house, Marc Gilbert. The Gilberts are turning it into a spa that will compete with Gabri and Olivier’s bistro and B & B. But Gilbert doesn’t appear to be the killer. He found the body in his foyer and moved it to the bistro. But who deposited the body at their doorway?

There are other suspects. Roar and Havoc Parras are part of a Czech community. It is revealed that the hermit had Czech connections. Roar has been cutting a trail for the Gilberts getting closer and closer to the hermit’s cabin. Havoc is an intelligent young man, seemingly content with working in the bistro, far below is potential. Gilbert’s father Vincent, a seemingly saintly figure who has worked with the mentally disabled, yet emotionally manipulative, just happens to show up, literally out of the woods.

Still, as clues emerge and the cabin is discovered as the murder scene, Olivier emerges as the lead suspect, even as his answers continue to be evasive. Gamache learns of his estranged relationship with his father and the extent of his wealth. He owns much of Three Pines. Where did that money come from?

Gamache’s inquiries focus around a set of valuable carvings made from a redwood from an island off of British Columbia. He even goes there and comes back knowing who the murderer is.

Meanwhile Penny continues to develop Peter and Clara Morrow. As Clara prepares for a debut show with Dennis Fortin, he drops a homophobic remark. She debates whether to say something and risk her future. Moral dilemmas result for both Clara and Peter. Clara know Fortin could cancel her show. Peter is conflicted as he sees her success eclipsing his own. What does integrity, loyalty, and a marital bond require?

The story explores the relationships of fathers and children. Some of these had shattering “brutal tellings.” Penny explores the shaping influences of fathers on children and the dangers of festering anger and how murder begins long before the act.

It seems each of these get better than the ones before, and this has a number of “unfinished” elements that leave one wondering “what’s next?” I look forward to how Penny will unfold this tale!

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.”