It’s hardly necessary to write a review of a Louise Penny book – if you’re a devotee, you’re going to pick this book up no matter what I say – but as all her novels are of a piece but still stand separate from each other, at least in terms of tone, they are well worth discussing individually. She wrapped up one thread with her last masterful novel, Bury Your Dead, and she’s changed tone somewhat and taken a new direction with this novel. Bury Your Dead was an intense, deep novel that wrapped up some emotional threads in a bravura manner. This new novel is a bit less intense but still has plenty to say.
The action is back in Three Pines, though it starts in Montreal at Clara’s long awaited art opening at a prestigious Montreal gallery. With the touch of a master, Penny introduces her characters (or shall we call them suspects?) at the gallery opening, sketching each one in for deeper work ahead. Penny’s love of artists and her writing about the art world reminds me of one of my very favorite mystery writers, Ngaio Marsh, whose main character was married to a well known painter. Like most novelists, Penny is in favor of the figurative in art, though since that’s my own particular sensibility it’s a slant I embrace wholeheartedly.
Penny’s gift as a mystery writer is to hew closely to genre conventions – her work reminds me of a golden age master, for heaven’s sake – but she then takes her story and deepens and shades it through a complex use of characterization. This is certainly a more modern approach to crime writing, as is her interest in looking at the aftermath of crime. Sometimes the victim in a Penny book is beloved, sometimes an enigma, and sometimes reviled. In this novel, the victim falls into the last category.
Discovered in Clara’s garden the morning after her art opening party, her red shoes sticking out of the shrubbery like the Wicked Witch of the West, is the dead body of one Lillian Dyson, Clara’s former childhood friend and adulthood enemy. She’s also someone Clara hasn’t seen for years, so why she’s turned up dead in Clara’s garden is a mystery.
The relationship between Clara and Peter is one that Penny has been hinting at and working through in all of the novels, but in this one, it’s center stage, as is the character of Lillian and her relationship with Clara. Lillian was an art critic who was known more for her venom than for her love of art, as well as being a failed artist herself. She and Clara, close friends as girls, had been driven apart by Lillian’s own jealousy and cruelty during their university years.
Peter is struggling with his own demons, the major one being his jealousy of Clara’s talent. While Peter is a successful artist, he is a conventional and safe one, whereas Clara is fearless is her approach, thus helping her at times find a way towards greatness in her own painting. This jealousy is driving the two of them apart, and this is a thread Penny has pulled through all the books to date. It comes to fruition in this volume.
It also becomes apparent that Lillian is a member of AA, another thread that runs through the novel, which, while it alternates between hope and despair, finds it’s strength in hope more than despair. That’s the real strength of Penny as a novelist. While she writes mysteries, confronting the kind of despair, greed or anger that would drive someone to murder, she always comes out on the side of the positive. Her description of one of Clara’s paintings perfectly encapsulates her theme. While I’ve read other art themed books where I was desperate to see the painting or sculpture referred to in the text, here Penny’s description makes her point so well and establishes the painting in the reader’s mind so firmly that to actually see it would be almost a disappointment – it would just be a trick of the light.