As with many gifted writers, Louise Penny has certain themes she tends to come back to and examine, and one of her major themes, through all the books, is the danger of being paralyzed by the past and refusing to change. Other writers who share this trait, off the top of my head, would be Thomas Cook (family relationships), S.J. Bolton (mysterious dark forces), William Kent Krueger (loyalty) and Elizabeth George (communication). They all have essential issues that concern them, and one way or another, that’s what all their books are about. It also makes their books more interesting.
This latest novel feels the most Canadian of all of them. While most of the books are set in Three Pines – or in one case, at an isolated resort – this one is set almost completely in Quebec, and Penny makes excellent use of her lovely setting and it’s history, which is a key part of the story. However, it has a different feel to it. While Three Pines is sort of its own country – a part of Penny’s and her reader’s imaginations – Quebec is, of course, a very real place. Three Pines, make no mistake, is still the heart of this novel, but the action is elsewhere.
The main setting is the Literary and Historical Society Library, run by the English segment of the Quebec population. When one of the more controversial Quebec citizens is found dead in their basement, all sorts of issues are raised and begin to boil to the surface. The dead man had one passion: finding the body of Samuel de Champlain, the explorer and the founder of Quebec. Little is actually known about Champlain – his date of birth, or what he even looked like (the one known portrait of him is apparently a false one), and one of the bigger questions is where he was buried. For Americans, this would be like not knowing where Washington or Lincoln ended up – a more that disconcerting loose end.
While Champlain and the men who study him form a central part of the story, from a pure mystery standpoint, he’s a McGuffin. Just like inRaiders of the Lost Ark, it’s hard to fictionally discover where a precious object might be. Positing a likely theory is good enough, and the main point is to give the characters a narrative impetus, which this does, while at the same time providing the book with texture and background.
Champlain’s is the main story, but there are several overlapping story arcs. One of them, naturally, concerns the series hero, Armand Gamache, who is suffering and recovering from an injury, both mental and physical. He has come to Quebec to stay with his old mentor, Emile Comreau, now retired and giving Gamache a non-judgmental safe haven in which to recover. Gamache is mostly communicating with his dog, however, so when he’s drawn into the case at the Library, where he’d been spending his days, it’s almost a welcome diversion from the other thoughts crowding his brain.
Meanwhile Gamache sends the similarly damaged Inspector Beauvoir back to Three Pines to look into another case. It’s fascinating how Beauvoir selects the acerbic Ruth Zardo as his eventual ally and confidante, but that thread I will leave for readers to discover on their own.
The unraveling of the incident that left both Gamache and Beauvoir injured is the third thread of the book, and it really becomes the central part. Both Gamache and Beauvoir are held captive by bad memories; just as the volunteers at the Literary and Historical Society Library are held captive by their own past, trying to hold the advancing present at bay. Life in Three Pines remains the ideal: the citizens there accept change, but life moves slowly. They can perhaps adapt more easily than most of us who have to live in the faster pace of the real world, and I think it’s part of what makes Three Pines so appealing to so many readers.
By the end of the novel, as Penny has balanced her love of Quebec’s beauty, her classic mystery setting in a beautiful library, and her exploration of the theories about where Champlain’s corpse might lie, her essential story comes back, as it always does, to Gamache. He’s imprisoned by his recent past; her question is, can he escape it? This many installments in, there won’t be a reader who doesn’t want an answer to that question, and I finished the book, as I do many of this author’s, in a flood of tears. This is another beautiful, well written book from one of the most gifted novelists at work in our genre today.