I love the way Louise Penny writes:
“Gamache and Reine-Marie looked onto this world of two suns, two skies, of mountains and forests multiplied. The lake wasn’t glass, it was a mirror. A bird gliding across the clear sky appeared on the tranquil water as well. It was a world so perfect it broke into two. Hummingbirds buzzed in the garden and monarch butterflies bobbed from flower to flower. A couple of dragonflies clicked around the dock. Reine-Marie and Gamache were the only people in the world.
This earthly paradise is the Manoir Bellechasse, a lodge in the countryside of Quebec. It is a place frequently visited by Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Surete du Quebec, and his wife Reine-Marie. Here, they find repose amid deep beauty. At least, that is what they usually find, and what they do in fact find, at least initially on this visit, despite the presence of the Morrow clan. The Morrows have come to the Manoir for a reunion, of sorts. I say “of sorts” because we usually think of family reunions as happy occasions, and this one is anything but. The Morrows are a dysfunctional bunch if there ever was one. At first, they are merely cold to one another and condescending to everyone else. Peter Morrow of the Village of Three Pines, an artist already known to the Gamaches, offers this blunt assessment: “‘We’re not a big family for kids….We eat our young.'” His wife Clara, also an artist, whose grim fate it was to marry into this cohort of adversaries, considers the Morrows to be “…Olympian in their ability to avoid unpleasantness, while being very unpleasant themselves.”
In this novel, Penny spends plenty of time setting the scene, and her meticulous attention to detail pays off. Well before the actual crime occurs, the reader feels thoroughly embedded in the situation: we know these characters, both the staff and the guests; we feel the love that the Gamaches have for the Manoir and touchingly, for each other as well.
Eventually a terrible crime does occur, shattering the peace of guests and staff alike and thrusting Gamache back into the role from which he was hoping for an escape, however brief – the role of investigator in a murder inquiry. As a reader, I felt the loss of serenity as keenly as did Armand and Reine-Marie.
Louise Penny is a positive genius at economical description of individuals, both as regards their physical appearance and their personalities. Of Morrow family matriarch Irene Finney:”She looked like a soft, inviting, faded pillow, propped next to a cliff face.”
Of Chef Veronique: “She was huge and beefy, her face like a pumpkin and her voice like a root vegetable. And she had knives. Lots of them. And cleavers and cast-iron pans.”
Here’s an exchange, witnessed by Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, between Reine-Marie and Ruth Zardo, a famously malevolent writer who is trailed through the village of Three Pines by a pet duck: “Beauvoir stared at Madame Gamache, as though for the last time. She was about to be devoured by Ruth Zardo, who ground up good people and turned them into poetry.”
Even minor characters are memorably described: “The owner of the crane company was waiting for them at the reception desk. He was small and square and looked like a pedestal. His steel-gray hair was short and stood on end. A red ridge cut across his forehead where a hard hat had sat, that day and every working day for the past thirty years.”
Penny’s powers of observation are formidable. And that’s “formidable,” with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable. The Francophone ambiance of this novel adds greatly to its appeal.
I came this series with the first entry:
Still Life won all kinds of awards and deservedly so. Penny hit the ground running; the marvelous, fully formed world she created in the village of Three Pines in Quebec enchanted readers everywhere. Armand Gamache is an enormously appealing protagonist, and in Still Life, he has to cope with a new young officer whose high opinion of her skills is way out of line with reality. His way of handling that difficult situation shows him to be fair, just, and stern when necessary.
I confess that when I turned to the sequel, A Fatal Grace, I was disappointed. That novel featured a main character that I found so two-dimensional, stereotypical, and just plain irritating that I was unable to finish the book. The third, The Cruelest Month, I just never got to. But I am so happy about number four, A Rule Against Murder – it is just plain terrific!