Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

I love Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” mysteries, and The Brutal Telling is one of the best in the series.

As readers of Penny’s series know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache heads the homicide department of the Sûreté du Quebec. And, as readers of Penny also know, most of the time, Chief Inspector Gamache is investigating a murder in the seemingly idyllic (I’d love to live there) village of Three Pines, twenty miles south of Montreal.

The corpse that gets things rolling in The Brutal Telling belongs to a hermit who shows up dead on the beautiful pine floor of the bistro owned by longtime partners, Olivier and Gabri, who also run the B&B next door. When Gamache and his colleagues, Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste show up, they discover that no one seems to know the dead man’s name or even where he came from. He certainly wasn’t living in Three Pines. And, it isn’t long until a young local man, Agent Paul Morin asks the group if he can tag along and learn what Gamache and company already know: catch a killer they didn’t move forward. They moved back. Into the past. That was where the crime began, where the killer began. Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, had lodged inside the murderer. And he’d begun to fester.

What kills can’t be seen, the Chief had warned Beauvoir. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s not a gun or a knife or a fist. It’s not anything you can see coming. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled. And waiting for a chance to strike.

It isn’t too long before Gamache discovers the hermit’s hut – a log structure hidden deep in the woods and containing more than one surprise. But what was the hermit’s name? How was he killed? And what was the motive? No one in Three Pines seems to know, or if they know, they aren’t talking.

Some of the above questions are eventually answered, while others remain mysteries, at least for most of the book. But this is the part of crime solving that Gamache loves the most:

...the possibility of turning left when he should have gone right. Of dismissing a lead, of giving up on a promising trail. Or not seeing one in his rush to a conclusion.

We know, almost from the beginning of the book, that some of the inhabitants of Three Pines are lying. Olivier, the man who owns the bistro in which the hermit’s body is found, is one. Olivier tells Gamache that he doesn’t know the dead man, but we know he does. Did he kill the man? Maybe. We’re unsure about every character Penny introduces. With each new introduction we have to ask ourselves the same question – could this person have killed the hermit – and invariably, the answer will be yes. Penny has woven red herrings all through her plot.

How involved is Myrna, owner of Three Pines’ bookstore, and the woman who found the hermit’s body on the floor of the bistro? And why does the very eccentric Ruth, the woman who takes her pet duck, Rosa, everywhere keep leaving scraps of poetry for Inspector Beauvoir? Does Ruth know who killed the hermit? Is she leaving Beauvoir clues? Does the killer come from within the ranks of the isolated villagers, or could he or she be one of the strangers in town? What about the people renovating the sinister old “Hadley house?” The Czech immigrants? The strange man in the forest? One of those persons knew the hermit. We know that from the book’s opening pages. But, did that person kill the hermit as well? Penny keeps the reader on his or her toes as we guess and guess again.

The plot is a heady and complex blend of mystery, history, greed, art, and lies, yet even with all its complexity, its never overly complicated. It’s quite cleverly constructed, and though some reviewers compare Penny to Agatha Christie, with all due respect to Ms. Christie, and I do love her books, Penny’s books reach further than Christie’s. Penny’s books explore so much more than just the solving of a murder. The Brutal Telling, especially, explores the broader themes that give rise to a violent and desperate act like murder.

The characterization is rich and complex. For me, the people inhabiting Three Pines really came alive. They all have backstory and histories with one another, and it shows. Not one of them could be eliminated, not one of them functions as “just a plot device.” And I loved their quirkiness. Ruth doesn’t have a pet dog or cat, or even a bird. She has a pet duck. A pet duck that wears discarded baby clothes.

Even Three Pines functions as a character, as Clara well knows:

This solid little village that never changed but helped its inhabitants to change. She'd arrived straight from art college full of avant-garde ideas, wearing shades of gray and seeing the world in black and white. So sure of herself. But here, in the middle of nowhere, she'd discovered color. And nuance. She'd learned from the villagers, who'd been generous enough to lend her their souls to paint. Not as perfect human beings, but as flawed, struggling men and women. Filled with fear and uncertainty, and in at least one case martinis.

I’ve seen a few complaints regarding the subplot involving the artist, Clara and her husband, Peter. A few people thought Clara and Peter were introduced only to bring an art expert into the mix. Not so. And if it’s an art expert Penny needed, she had one built in in the character of Therese Brunel. Clara and Peter’s subplot, and Clara’s desire for the validation of having her works shown in a major gallery, have been a running subplot in all the “Gamache mysteries.” However, one doesn’t have to know this in order to read and enjoy The Brutal Telling. This book can stand on its own. It doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the previous books in the series. And, if a reader reads The Brutal Telling first, that reader can go back to the previous four “Inspector Gamache” mysteries confident that the fifth gives no spoilers regarding the previous four.

As the plot of The Brutal Telling advances, Inspector Gamache becomes entwined in the international art and antiques trade, and he travels from Three Pines to Montreal to the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia. What he finds there, while necessary to this book’s resolution, will only cause Gamache, and the other inhabitants of Three Pines, much sorrow.

I know readers who put the “Inspector Gamache” mysteries into the classification of “cozies.” I would have to agree that that classification comes closest of all, though Gamache is certainly nothing like Christie’s Miss Marple, to me, the "Queen of the Cozies." (I adore Miss Marple, by the way.) Three Pines is quaint and charming no matter how many murders are committed there. There’s something dreamlike and mystical about the village, especially during the fall, and The Brutal Telling is set during the colorful southern Canadian autumn when everything is undergoing a transformation, not into something totally different, but into something more fully itself.

Though there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, I didn’t really like the book’s ending, and for me, it was a gloomy ending. I came away from the book feeling that some day Louise Penny is going to have more to say about this murder and the person who allegedly committed it.

The one criticism I have of this book has to do with Penny’s writing style. Instead of writing longer sentences, Penny tends to break a sentence up into phrases. Not every time, of course, but often enough so that it became very, very noticeable. At first, I didn’t mind, but it happened so often it began to drive me nuts. It was jarring. The writing was calling attention to itself, and it would have been so much better had it not done so. Here’s one example:

But nothing was more surprising than what awaited Chief Inspector Gamache. In the farthest corner of the room.


While everyone else was gazing ahead, he was slumped down and staring back. To where they’d been.

And those aren’t even the worst offenders. Some of the many other instances caused the writing to be extremely choppy. Maybe those of us who are bothered by this are in the minority. I don’t know, but given the glowing reviews of this book, and all Penny’s other books, I’d say we are. You might feel this is a quibble, or you might be bothered even more than I was. I just wanted to make readers aware of this quirk in Penny’s writing style. Otherwise, Penny’s writing style is fine, just perfect for a murder mystery. While reading, I would be totally engrossed in the mystery until one of these awkward (to me) phrases would pull me out of the book.

In the end, though, The Brutal Telling is the kind of mystery that envelopes the reader, that leaves him wanting more, that makes him happy to open the pages of the book and get reacquainted with characters he considers “old friends.”

Even though I closed this book with sadness, I can’t wait until I have an opportunity to read Penny’s next book in the series. Louise Penny is one of the finest mystery authors writing today.


Recommended: If you love a good literary mystery, then this is the book for you.

Note: If you think you recognize Ruth Zardo’s poetry, you probably do. The poetry Penny has used, with permission of the authors, belongs to Margaret Atwood, Ralph Hodgson, and Mike Freeman.

The “Inspector Gamache” mysteries are, in order of publication:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick of the Light
(To be released in the US on August 30, 2011)


Anonymous said...

I LOVE this series! I don't think Gamache got the right man, either. Terrific review! Thanks!


Karen said...

With all due respect to the reviewer's dislike of Louise Penny sometimes using short, choppy sentences, I see your quibble. However, you might notice it has a certain bent towards poetry. The books are definitely not rote "cozies". They are both light and dark, the prose flows and, like life, suddenly becomes a bit choppy, but it leads the reader ever deeper into the lives, hearts and minds of the characters who are always more than three dimensional, each with their own dark center.