The Quebec village of Three Pines is a quaint retreat from the hectic pace of 21st-century society. Mere kilometers from the border with Vermont and an hour or so from Montreal, Three Pines is too small to appear on a map. Most of its inhabitants seem to have discovered it by accident—cresting the hill and suddenly feeling that they'd come home.
Around the village green (of course the village has a green) are "weathered white clapboard cottages, with wide porches and wicker chairs…tiny fieldstone houses built centuries ago by the first settlers," and homes of "rose-hued brick, built by United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution." No strip malls here—just local shops, arranged side by side in a semicircle: a general store, a pastry shop, a bistro, a new and used bookstore.
And anchoring one end of the common are the three tall pines that had once signaled sanctuary to those "hiding from a war they didn’t believe in."
Like any self-respecting village, Three Pines harbors certain eccentrics—in this case, a foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly old woman who also happens to be a nationally renowned poet (albeit one who cannot bear to hear her poetry read aloud). The town also has its eccentricities: a seemingly haunted house; a bistro where every item of furnishing is for sale; and, oh yes—a curious habit of producing dead bodies.
The bodies, naturally, are what bring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to Three Pines. If you have not yet made the acquaintance of the urbane yet down-to-earth 50-something head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec, you're in for a rare treat. As a francophone, Gamache has been likened to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, but he’s a much more dimensional character, ready to stride fully fleshed from the page.
Yes, you're in for a treat. But not if you start with this book.
The Brutal Telling is the fifth volume in Louise Penny's engaging series of "village mysteries," and fans of the Gamache stories will want to read it simply to keep tabs on village life. The dénouement is shocking on one level, but it will be most meaningful to readers who have come to know the cast of Three Pines characters more intimately than is possible from this book alone. And the characters—including Gamache's loyal team of detectives—are well worth getting to know, for each has his or her own secrets and foibles.
This time out, sad to say, Penny's storytelling is overwrought, the red herrings more fishy than clever. The interviews with murder suspects, Gamache's maunderings about them, and the suspects' own internal musings often come across as caricatures of the psychological drama that Penny handled with a lighter hand in her earlier books.
Hoping to learn the murder victim's identity, Gamache flies clear across Canada to the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of northern British Columbia. At this point, I confess, I found myself wondering if Penny simply wanted a vacation from Three Pines. The Charlottes interlude makes for an interesting passage, but aside from confirming that the victim had spent time there, the expedition does little to identify the murderer. Perhaps Penny is laying the groundwork for future foreign jaunts by Gamache?
Three rewarding features of the series remain undimmed.
The first is Penny's tantalizing descriptions of friends gathering for meals, which unfailingly make me hungry. Even a loaf of fresh bread becomes an aromatic character, and meals in the village bistro are sheer hedonic heaven.
The second benefit is the continuity provided by subplots that add depth to the various characters and offer a refreshing diversion from the hunt for the murderer. Penny's wicked humor emerges often when Gamache's number two, Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, is on the page and especially in exchanges between Beauvoir and the old poet, Ruth Zardo, who both aggravates and terrifies him. Here's a typical example:
" 'Well? Are you going to arrest Marc Gilbert?'
'For what?' asked Beauvoir.
'Murder for one. Are you nuts?'
'Am I nuts? Who’s the one with a duck in a sweater?' ''
Which brings up Zardo's pet duck, Rosa, who adds a certain wackiness to otherwise ordinary scenes. (If you read this book first, you'll miss Rosa's backstory.)
The third reward is Penny's evocation of the relationship between French- and English-speaking Quebec. Gamache and his team are bilingual Francophones; suspects are often Anglophones whose command of French varies. A reader learns a fair bit of Québecois history in the course of an investigation. Then there are the swear words. Ignorant as I was, I first thought they were some kind of joke. Turns out that the most blasphemous oaths—unprintable in francophone Quebec—are words taken from the church liturgy: Tabernac! Chalice!
So, if you are new to the Inspector Gamache series, remember that the first Penny (Still Life) shines the brightest, and that the books are best collected and admired in the order they appeared. If you're already a fan, as I am, read The Brutal Telling with patience; at least we'll understand the allusions when the next book comes out. By then, I trust, the author will have remedied the sort of flaws that leave this Penny in less than mint condition.
Roberta Conlan, the founder and managing editor of book packager EdiGraphics, is an editor and writer who divides her time between Virginia and Hawai‘i.