Louise Penny: A World of Curiosities

It’s not easy to tell a good story in the past and present at the same time. Often, characters get lost along the way, or one plot is simply far better. Louise Penny manages it handily in A World of Curiosities. In many ways, though it’s the eighteenth book in the series, it’s an origin story, too. It helps that these characters we’ve come to love play such a strong part in both stories. And, though the backbone of Penny’s books is built on Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir’s relationship, we’ve never seen their first case together. We know how they met, of course, but Penny had never gone in depth.

As with all good mysteries, the current tragedy starts in the past. When Gamache and Beauvoir meet, Beauvoir is circling the drain. He’s angry, young, and rebellious. His superior officer does not like him, and the feeling is definitely mutual. Thanks to a recent murder in the area, Gamache has been called in to solve it, and potentially drop the axe on Beauvoir’s career at the same time. Of course, we know he doesn’t take that swing, but now it’s clear why.

What started with a dead woman found in the river leads to a perplexing mystery in the present. At least, Gamache thinks the cases are connected. Fiona and Sam Arsenault are visiting Three Pines right as things get weird. These two, now grown, are the children of the woman found in the river so long ago. After what happened, Gamache took Fiona under his wing, but never did so for Sam. He never trusted Sam enough, even though everyone else, his wife and best friend included, preferred him to his sister.

Just as the two return to Gamache’s life, Fiona points out that Myra’s home has a secret attic that was long boarded up. Myra, needing more space, takes advantage of the news and takes down the wall. There, they find a reproduction of the famous painting A World of Curiosities, and a waterfall of mysteries comes from there. How did it get in the attic? Why was it there in the first place? And, given that the reproduction has modern touches, why was it added recently?

Throughout, Gamache struggles with his gut instinct to trust Fiona, going back and forth on whether or not she is involved. It’s certainly a big coincidence that the siblings are there when things start happening, but is it just that? The matter becomes more pressing as, of course, a body turns up in the present day too. And it seems he must solve the case quickly – danger is in Three Pines, whether the Arsenaults have anything to do with it or not.

Penny is a master of her craft, and she shows off her research skills without dragging the story down. We get hints of the founding of Three Pines, details about the painting, and even a look into Canada’s relationship with mass shootings and how Gamache figured into one of the worst. Though jumping in on book eighteen probably isn’t recommended, this book can just about be enjoyed on its own. It explains a lot, while adding brushstrokes to the series canvas along the way. This entry may very well be one of my favorites in the series, full stop. — Margaret Agnew


Margaret Agnew is the Director of the Cahokia Public Library in Cahokia, Illinois.  A graduate of Ripon College and Indiana University, she has been a mystery fan and an avid reader from an early age.  She also reviews for Mystery Scene magazine.