This may be the most traditional of Louise Penny’s now four novels, though she has been labeled from the beginning as a “traditional” mystery writer. And indeed, she does write in the same tradition as Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Agatha Christie (a tradition they helped create), but she has managed to make this old form her own. She has an exceptional gift with prose, and the character development she brings to her writing is very modern. In each book, Penny has managed to slightly change up her formula to make each story feel fresh, and this one is no exception.
Using another timeless mystery trope—Penny takes her series character out of his familiar surroundings—she’s still able to make this seem new by painting a verbal portrait of each of the characters in the story. It’s as though Agatha Christie has come back and re-written Ten Little Indians, only using fully fleshed characters. It’s extremely entertaining, but Penny is enough of a psychologist to eventually make the effect disturbing, as the people in the novel, and their problems and sadnessess, begin to take on three dimensions instead of the two they are allotted on the page.
Inspector Gamache and his wife, the lovely Reine-Marie, have gone to celebrate their anniversary at the charming Manior Bellechasse, which never the less seems to have an air of mystery and foreboding hanging over it, set up in part by an atmospheric prologue. They have spent every anniversary there and are expected; they come prepared to enjoy everything that comes their way. They are surrounded, however, by the Finney family, who approach life in the opposite manner—they expect disappointment. This troubled, complicated and alienated family stand apart from each other like prickly hedgehogs—everything they say to each other offends or wounds, and they retreat to their own corners to brood. To the surprise of Armand and Reine Marie, two of their friends from Three Pines are part of this family. (Note: I’m not going to reveal who they are, but if you want to be surprised as you read the book don’t read the back of the jacket—it gives away a surprise the author took some pains to set up). Gamache himself is coming to terms with some old family history that’s teased out throughout the book, but the main part of the plot involves the murder of one of the Finneys, Julia, the most distant of the siblings.
I’ve heard Louise say that she thinks the manner of the death is the least important aspect of the story, and that may be true in terms of the characters and the story arc, but she’s managed, once again, to set up a fiendishly clever manner of death with a seemingly impossible manner of implementation. Simply put, Julia is killed by a falling statue that couldn’t fall over. The way Gamache figures it out is sort of the way a sculptor works—he keeps polishing up aspects of the crime, and polishing and revealing the characters until they are clearer and clearer, until the solution itself is also clear. The way the characters are knit together, and the way the Gamaches respond to them, is richly layered, complex, and frequently humorous. While sometimes the circumstances of the story or murder may be a bit far fetched, the emotional truth behind the story and characters is rock solid.
I also appreciate the fact that this author chooses not to hit the reader over the head with details or even explain everything that happens. There are some details left up to the reader to figure out, and I appreciate the respect she has for her readers to be able to do that. When you finish the book, I think you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you’ll probably enjoy thinking about it as much as I have. I’ll just say the one word, Bean. Now you can read A Rule Against Murder yourself and discover its delights on your own.