Friday, September 29, 2017

What we're reading: The best mystery series?

Previous reviews on this blog will let you know just how much I love Louise Penny's series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec that began in 2005 with
Still Life. I love the setting—the tiny secret village of Three Pines, somewhere in the woods near Montreal, where an eclectic group of residents meets at the local bistro for hot and potent drinks accompanied by brioche dripping in butter, and where an inexplicably large number of "incidents" take place. I love the people—Reine-Marie, Gamache's wife; Myrna, the bookstore owner; Clara, the painter; Gabri and Olivier, who run the bistro and the B&B; and of course, Ruth, the curmudgeonly old poet.  I love the sidekicks—Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Isabel Lacoste. But the heart of the books is the dauntingly perceptive, subtle, complex, yet simultaneously simple and open Gamache. His character is torn by doubts, yet his resolve is unwavering. He dissects and evaluates and combines bits of information that no one else would even regard, but when he acts, it is direct and to the point. He is both endearing and terrifying.

In Penny's new book, Glass Houses, #13 in the series, Armand Gamache continues to have unplumbed depths, and this book takes us all the way down. There is a cobrador, a menacing figure standing on the village green of Three Pines, there to call someone to account for their sins. There is a murder, there is a trial; but although all these things have to do with the story, none of them is at the heart of it. The heart of the story is Gamache's all-out, last-ditch play to reclaim both the Sûreté and Québec itself from the darkness. To do it, he has to let things play out beyond anywhere he's been before, at the risk of seeming complacent, incompetent, or even corrupt. It's a painful process, for him but especially for Inspectors Beauvoir and Lacoste, who are with him, as always, but without the inner fortitude and conviction that Gamache musters in the face of evil. Gamache is taking the Sûreté to the court of conscience, which may be antithetical to what goes on in the courts of law.

In some ways this is a frustrating book to read, because there are multiple stories and two timelines represented, and they switch back and forth without warning, many times on the same page. But Penny manages to clue you to when/where you are, with, of all mundane tricks, the weather—one part of the story takes place during the stifling heat of summer, while the other is in the waning year, in dank, chilly, depressing November. So that helps. And despite the frustration, you read on, because you have to know: For whose deeds is the cobrador standing on the green? Who died, and who is the killer? (This is perhaps the hardest element to stand throughout the book, that even during the course of lengthy court scenes, you never know who is sitting at the defendant's table!) Who is using Three Pines, of all places, to hide their dastardly business? And how (keep reading, keep reading!) will it all end?

I loved it. As usual.

Please note that this is not a series from which you can choose a book in the middle (or at the end) and have a clue what's happening. You must start from the beginning. This may deter some people, but it shouldn't; if you are a lover of complex, labyrinthine mysteries with strong characters and great back story, you will enjoy every moment from book #1 to book #13 (although I personally think #1 is the weakest and they get better with each volume, so keep reading!). It's one of those series that makes you wish you could erase it from your memory so you could experience it again, fresh.

But don't let my opinion influence you unduly: Glass Houses has been out for three weeks, and is #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

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