From The Record, August 18th, 2017
I don’t usually pen mystery book reviews—I leave that privilege to my friend and colleague Vincent Cuddihy—but this week is kind of special. Knowlton’s own Louise Penny is in the news for inviting Bill and Hilary Clinton, along with their daughter Chelsea, her husband and children, as well as a flotilla of secret service personnel, to spend a week at Hovey Manor in North Hatley, culminating in Bill’s birthday next weekend. Thus, what could be more appropriate than a review of Penny’s 11th book, The Nature of the Beast (available in Lennoxville Library) set, as usual, in the fictional Eastern Townships village of Three Pines, where secrets abound and bodies pile up on a regular basis? But wait, there’s even more reason to devote Good Reads space to The Nature of the Beast this week: In this period of high anxiety regarding lunatic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s arsenal expansion and face-offs with America’s own lunatic leader, the book centres on a WMD (weapon of mass destruction) that has been discovered in—where else?—three Three Pines. How did it get there? What is its purpose? Where is it aimed? Who will meet an untimely end en route to unravelling the many mysteries that surround the massive and cleverly hidden gun? Intricate plotting, along with a somewhat languid style, makes this one of Penny’s best. As always, there are surprises along the way, in addition to the author’s signature passages regarding the pleasures of life in the Townships, especially in the culinary realm.
The leading players in this outing are, as usual, former Sureté de Québec Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife, archivist Reine-Marie, both newly-retired to Three Pines; slightly hot-headed son- in-law and Sureté officer Jean-Guy Beauvoir; and eccentric local poet Ruth Zardo and her duck, Rosa. They are ably supported by now-familiar Three Pines residents Gabri and Olivier, proprietors of the Three Pines bistro, as well as psychologist/bookstore owner Myrna and painter Clara, (the central character in Penny’s first novel, Still Life). There are also some three Pines newcomers: Al and Evelyn Lepage and their young son Laurent, and community theatre director Antoinette Lemaitre and her partner, Brian Fitzpatrick. On the law enforcement front, in addition to Beauvoir, we have Chief Inspector Isabelle Lacoste and Gamache’s protégé, Adam Cohen, plus RCMP officer Paul Gélinas.
Mysterious interested parties who turn up in Three Pines when news of the discovery gets out include CSIS functionaries (or are they?) Mary Fraser and Sean Delorme, as well as retired McGill physics professor Michael Rosenblatt. All three are clearly hiding crucial information from Gamache and Beaudoin, and have a pronounced antipathy to one another.
One of the perks of reading Penny’s books, which appear with clockwork regularity each fall, is running across familiar references such as the Knowlton Players and Highgate, Vermont. For local readers it is always a tiny thrill to see our home turf appear in a best seller. Another positive aspect of her books is her humour. Murder is never funny, but there is always a heaping helping of humour in the depiction of many of her characters, particularly foul-mouthed poet Ruth Zardo. As well, Penny herself has been known to poke fun at the number of violent deaths that occur in such a sparsely populated area.
Two other reasons for the popularity of Penny’s books centre on personalities: her own, and that of her main character, Armand Gamache. Even before she became the wildly popular and award-winning author she is today, Louise Penny was a known quantity as a CBC Montreal radio personality. When she left that career behind and hit the jackpot with her first novel in 2005, the qualities that she exemplified on air became familiar to reading audiences world-wide. A warm and gracious person, she is also remarkably candid about her life, including her bouts with alcoholism and writer’s block, and her late-life marriage to her beloved Michael, who died last fall at age 82 following a difficult period of dementia. Penny’s website, www.louisepenny.com, is a fountain of information about her life, her interests, and, of course, her books.
Inspector Gamache—quiet, literate, thoughtful, perceptive, poetic and highly principled—has touched a chord with readers everywhere. Now surrounded full time by the diverse denizens of Three Pines, Gamache is the epitome of the husband, father, brother or son that we can all love, admire, and respect. In fact, his character is based largely on Penny’s late husband, Michael. Although not infallible, Gamache is a person we can all aspire to become.
As we make our way through the second half of August and the inevitable doldrums that accompany the end of summer/ start of fall (SCHOOL!), spending time with a good book seems like a terrific idea, especially in light of world events. In fact, if you wander over to North Hatley in the next day or two, you might even be able to spend some time with Louise Penny herself, and get a glimpse of her famous friends.
Although it helps to have read at least some of her previous books, it is not essential. This volume is an excellent example of the author’s story-telling abilities, and can certainly be a stand-alone read. Since the publication of The Nature of the Beast in 2015, Penny has published A Great Reckoning, deemed one of her best by devoted fan (and my husband) Gerry Cutting, and will soon release her 13th Inspector Gamache novel, Glass Houses. If you pre-order your book through Brome Lake Books in Knowlton and request the author’s signature and an inscription, they will happily comply, and welcome you back with open arms to the mythical, mystical village of Three Pines.