If I were asked to name my favorite murder mystery writer of today, I think I’d choose Louise Penny. Elizabeth George would be a close second, but I believe I prefer Louise Penny’s tiny community of Three Pines and the complicated psychological and philosophical problems unraveled by her unflappable Canadian head of homicide at the Surete du Quebec, Armand Gamaché. A Trick of the Light is the seventh book in a series that began with Still Life. All seven novels are centered in Three Pines, a rural Quebec outpost that reminds me of Brigadoon in that it appears on no maps and is almost wholly self-contained. The outside world intrudes, to be sure, but the focus of each story always comes back to the residents of Three Pines, their pasts, their eccentricities, their aspirations, their foibles and follies, their successes and failures.
Louise Penny is an author whose books keep getting better, so A Trick of the Light is a masterpiece of intrigue. But someone new to Penny’s unique universe really ought to begin at the beginning. Still Life, debuting in 2005, introduces the thoughtful Insprector Gamaché and his indispensable associate, Jean Guy Beauvoir. It also introduces the two detectives and their squad of big city associates to Three Pines and its odd assortment of residents: the artists Clara and Peter Morrow, the poet Ruth Zardo, the bookseller Myrna Landers, the gay bistro owners Gabri and Olivier. Other characters come and go throughout the seven novels, but these are the recurring centerpieces whose intellects drive the storylines that weave together from one book to the next.
Reading the books out of order would spoil much of the magic and mystery. Each is a stand-alone tale of physical murder and psychological mayhem, but each builds upon its predecessors. What happens in one novel often directly affects the story line of the next one. So I’m writing an enthusiastic review of the latest, A Trick of the Light, without wanting to give away either its narrative secrets or its connective tissues with the six novels that came earlier. Suffice to say that at least one murder occurs, that certain residents of Three Pines come under suspicion, that multiple lives will intertwine in unpredictable ways, that mistakes will be made, and that ultimately Inspector Gamaché will untangle the fragmented threads.
It’s the beautiful intricacy of Gamaché’s thinking that makes all these books so rewarding. He reads widely, appreciates art, enjoys gourmet food and wine, dearly loves his wife and family, is fiercely protective of his Surete staff, and slowly—novel by novel–develops a personal connection with all of the Three Pines residents. What is remarkable is the fact that, despite their similarities, each book conveys a totally original plotline that spins on its own separate axis of evil. Still Life introduces the collage of characters; A Trick of the Light is haunted by Clara’s past. In between, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, and Bury Your Dead expose other disturbing Three Pines secrets and follow the Chief Inspector’s sophisticated reasoning as he solves more and more murders connected to this not-so-idyllic Canadian retreat. Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, new in hardcover later this month, will be the eighth in the series. I can’t wait to read it! – A.R.
A Trick of the Light is also available in audio. Listen to an audio clip from the book now:
The other titles in the Chief Inspector Gamache Novel are also available: Still Life; A Fatal Grace; The Cruelest Month; A Rule Against Murder; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead.