Louise Penny: The Brutal Telling

At this point in Louise Penny’s career—a mere five books into her Inspector Gamache series—we already have to post a notecard in a prominent place behind the counter so we can easily answer the question, “When does the next Louise Penny book come out?” Happily, this year is a double dip —we’ve already gotten A Rule Against Murder earlier this year. I’m as greedy a reader as the next person, and am just as delighted as anyone to get to the next installment in this wonderful series.

One of the hallmarks of a Louise Penny novel—and many customers have commented on this—is that the books are simply, well, nice. Only a nice person could actually describe a homicide investigation in this manner:

Gamache watched the team at work. There was a grace to it, one perhaps only appreciated by another homicide officer. The fluid motions, stepping aside, leaning in and out and down, bowing and lifting and kneeling. It was almost beautiful.

In a later segment of the book, Gamache assures someone he is questioning: “Goodness exists… Believe me.” These books are an assurance in the face of a sometimes harsh world that goodness does, indeed, exist, and that may partly explain the passion Penny seems to inspire in her readers. With almost every word, she gives you something to hope for.

But the really good part (not to overuse the word) is that Penny is also a natural born storyteller. I imagine if we all still lived in caves those of us lucky enough to be the next cave over from Penny’s might gather nightly at her campfire to hear her tell a story. The one in this book may be her best yet, and that is saying a lot.

Each of the novels has centered on a character in Three Pines, sometimes a tangential character, sometimes a central one. In this novel, it’s the character of Olivier, the B & B owner, who assumes the central part of the story. As the book opens a terrible story is being told by firelight; the storyteller and the listener, Olivier and a hermit who lives in the woods around Three Pines. While this story—a haunting one—is the opening salvo, what really kicks things off is the body of the hermit being found in Olivier’s B & B. Of course Gamache and his team from the Surete are called in to investigate.

It’s always surprising to me that this woman who writes in such a delicate and complex manner about character and relationships is also laying in the tricky clues of a true mystery writer. There’s no little bit that’s unimportant though, if you’re like me, you still won’t figure out the ending. One of the main mysteries is: how did the body of the hermit get into the B & B—and who is he? Olivier isn’t telling. As readers we know he knows and that he’s uncomfortable, but that’s all. We have to find out when the police do who the man really is.

As the author deftly peels back layer after layer of Olivier’s character, we are made to examine it, sometimes against the wishes of any reader who may have become fond of Olivier through now five novels. Like most of the people in Three Pines, we want to think the best of him. Key to understanding Olivier, though, is his love of both beautiful objects and of money. As details of some of his methods of obtaining antiques are fleshed out, you’re forced to look inward and consider—is what Olivier did really so terrible? Would I behave in the same way?

And of course terrible is a matter of degree. What might be slightly off, when left to fester or taken to extremes, can produce extreme behavior. The secrets contained at the end of the book are surprising, but the groundwork for them has been fairly laid. The interweaving of the theme of what constitutes behavior that is not just correct but morally correct fills out the story, to the end of every thread. But because this is an author that tells a story more or less organically—each part of it seems to grow from the part before it or next to it—the threads are rich and full. All the parts of it tie together and, at the same time, all the parts of it stand up on their own.

While gently introducing a few new characters into the Three Pines community, Penny still depends on her old favorites—Peter and Clara, Ruth Zardo, Myrna and Gabri to provide a framework for her setting and her story. We are every bit as happy to see them as Inspector Gamache is. For just a little while, it’s wonderful to be able to enter the world this author has created. Her work truly transports you out of your world and into hers, and that’s the best gift any book can deliver.