I was looking for a new mystery series to read, back at the end of 2015, and my buddy Mary Ann suggested that I give Louise Penny’s Three Pines, AKA the Armand Gamache series, a try.
I’m not gonna lie. For most of the first 100 pages of that first book, I wondered what the heck Penny was doing. The book seemed to not be going anywhere, until suddenly it arrived exactly on time, and just where it was supposed to be.
That is the peculiar magic of a Gamache book. They toddle along, seemingly aimless, in circles. You second- and third-guess the protagonists, frequently wondering where in the world they are going THIS TIME. You almost give up, in frustration. And then, magically, all the gears drop into place, and you find yourself at the end, wondering how she did it, again. How she so gently steered the ship that you didn’t see the rudder, or feel the wind, and yet, you reached the other side.
The Gamache books are set in a tiny hamlet in southern Canada, bordering Vermont. The town of Three Pines is bar none, the most dangerous town in Canada, with more murders per capita than DC at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. People come from all over Canada to die there, or, more to the point, to get murdered there, like it’s some sort of bucket list item, like there’s a line to get in. Like people just wait for the opportunity, look for the opening. “There’s a murder spot open at the Boulangerie next Sunday at seven? You want it?”
Because of the absurdity of that, Penny does occasionally set the books outside of Three Pines. Sometimes, there’s a murder while Gamache is on vacation. Paris, in book #16, for example. But the books that are not set in Three Pines are significantly flawed. Part of what makes the magic happen is the time that we spend with the locals there. As the plot moves along at its leisurely pace, we don’t even notice the time passing because we are so enjoying catching up with Clara. Ruth. Olivier. Gabri. Reine-Marie. Rosa. Jean-Guy. Isabel. Myrna. Annie. Daniel. Rosalyn.
And by the time we have emptied the last bottle of scotch, enjoyed the last warm chocolate croissant, and gotten one more book recommendation, the murder is solved. It’s lovely. And after seventeen books, the townspeople feel like family.
Which brings us to that seventeenth book.
It starts innocently enough.
While the residents of the Québec village of Three Pines take advantage of the deep snow to ski and toboggan, to drink hot chocolate in the bistro and share meals together, the Chief Inspector finds his holiday with his family interrupted by a simple request.
He’s asked to provide security for what promises to be a non-event. A visiting Professor of Statistics will be giving a lecture at the nearby university.
While he is perplexed as to why the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec would be assigned this task, it sounds easy enough. That is until Gamache starts looking into Professor Abigail Robinson and discovers an agenda so repulsive he begs the university to cancel the lecture.
They refuse, citing academic freedom, and accuse Gamache of censorship and intellectual cowardice. Before long, Professor Robinson’s views start seeping into conversations. Spreading and infecting. So that truth and fact, reality and delusion are so confused it’s near impossible to tell them apart.
Discussions become debates, debates become arguments, which turn into fights. As sides are declared, a madness takes hold.
Abigail Robinson promises that, if they follow her, ça va bien aller. All will be well. But not, Gamache and his team know, for everyone.
When a murder is committed it falls to Armand Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team to investigate the crime as well as this extraordinary popular delusion.
And the madness of crowds.
This one was not my favorite. It was good, but it was dark, and a little heavy-handed. I get that Penny didn’t think that she could just ignore Covid in her return to the Eastern Townships…but the book needed a lighter touch. Also, seriously, enough with the repetitive nicknames. I counted the number of times that one character was referred to by an off-color nickname, and that number was forty. I was done with it after about five, so there was that. There was also a fairly major subplot involving a visit from a Sudanese freedom fighter, which in a book that was already a little on the preachy side, felt gratuitous. I loved that character, but I do wish that she were in a book that was not already so fraught, and that she were better integrated into the main arc.
However, the plot did all come together in the end, the joins were strong, but invisible, and it was ever so nice to see the family. I have already made next year’s B&B reservation.