Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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Day 372: A Trick of the Light

Cover for A Trick of the LightThe morning after the village of Three Pines throws a big party to celebrate Clara Morrow’s show at the prestigious Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, the body of a murdered woman is found in Clara’s garden. The body turns out to be that of Clara’s childhood friend Lillian Dyson, whom she has not seen in more than 20 years.

Clara’s friendship with Dyson was broken because Dyson cruelly betrayed her in art school. This puts Clara on the list of suspects. However, as Inspector Gamache’s team investigates Dyson, they find that she has a reputation for doing harm to others by trying to ruin their careers in art, providing a broad field of suspects, especially after a party celebrating an art debut.

On the other hand, Dyson is viewed completely differently by her new circle of acquaintances, which leads Inspector Gamache to wonder if people can really change their natures. Eventually, the police realize that Dyson was on a 12-step program and that she was probably intending to ask forgiveness of one of the people at the party.

On another front, Clara seems to be headed toward trouble in her marriage. Although her husband Peter has been happy with his own moderately successful career in the art field, now that Clara may be proving to be more talented than he is, he is becoming jealous and insecure.

Although this mystery has Penny’s usual hallmarks of beautiful description and insight into people’s characters, I do not like where the plot involving Jean Guy Beauvoir is going. Also, I thought it took the police an awfully long time to figure out about the 12-step program.

Day 348: A Fatal Grace

Cover for A Fatal GraceIn this second novel of the series, Inspector Gamache is investigating the death of an old bag lady when he is called back to Three Pines to solve the murder of a very unpleasant woman. C C de Poitiers is a minor celebrity who is poison in the village because she treats others so callously. Now she has met an unusual and complicated death, electrocuted while watching a curling game on the day after Christmas.

Gamache has lots of suspects, including the victim’s hen-pecked husband and her daughter, whom she continually heckled about her weight. But as he investigates, he finds that Poitiers was not who she said she was.

In an ongoing plot, Gamache’s career is threatened by an old case where he took down some crooked officers high in the force. He has two new members of his team, local agent Robert Lemieux and agent Yvette Nichol, taken on because he likes to mentor young officers. However, one of them is working for his enemies by helping them sabotage his career.

It is always a pleasure to return to Three Pines, and I like the generous Inspector Gamache. Apparently some readers who were charmed by the picturesque village in the first novel were disenchanted by this sequel, but a mystery series about murders in a small town is bound to affect the atmosphere of the location. My favorite of the series so far is actually the one that took place in Quebec City, and it’s hard to imagine how many more people Penny can kill off in this village, but I still enjoy the series.

Day 329: Still Life

Cover for Still LifeStill Life is the first of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries. It provides us an introduction to the kindly Gamache and his team and to the beautiful village of Three Pines, where many of the subsequent mysteries are set.

An elderly woman named Jane Neal is found dead in the woods near Three Pines, shot apparently by a careless bow hunter. Inspector Gamache and his team are initially called in to ascertain whether the suspicious death is an accident or a homicide. Gamache quickly determines that the death was a homicide and then begins to look for the murderer.

Although Jane was highly regarded by most folks in the village, one suspect is her cold and greedy niece, Yolande Fontaine, who can’t wait to get her hands on her aunt’s property. Her husband has a criminal record, and her son is a delinquent who may have been out with a bow on the day of the murder.

Through this novel we get to know the characters who recur throughout the series–Olivier and Gabri, the gay owners of the bistro and bed and breakfast; Clara and Peter Morrow, local artists; Myrna Landers, a former psychologist who owns the bookstore; and Ruth Zardo, an eccentric curmudgeon who turns out to be a famous poet. Another important character is Ben Hadley, Peter Morrow’s best friend for years, whose mother died a month before from cancer.

Penny’s mysteries have the feel of cozies set in a small village, like some of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books. Her characters are well developed and interesting. The peaceful atmosphere of the village is palpable. I had a disadvantage in reading this novel after most of the others, so it was clear to me that the murderer was someone who no longer lives in the village in the later books. This narrowed the field considerably. I would advise those who are interested in reading Louise Penny’s series to start with Still Life and try to move forward in order.

Day 314: The Brutal Telling

Cover for The Brutal TellingI was unable to judge the difficulty of this mystery because I read its sequel first and therefore knew how the mystery would be solved. The other Louise Penny books are not quite so dependent upon sequence, but I suggest that you read The Brutal Telling before Bury Your Dead, if at all possible.

That being said, I still found the novel to tell a compelling story.

A body is discovered in the bistro/antique shop of the small village of Three Pines. The bistro owners, Gabby and Olivier, are appalled but also confused. No one knows who the man is or where he lives. At least they say they don’t, but the reader knows from the first that Olivier knows more about the man than he is saying.

Inspector Gamache and his team quickly determine that the victim was not killed in the bistro. Soon, they find a cabin deep in the woods that apparently belongs to the man, apparently a hermit. They are amazed to find it stuffed with priceless antiques, first edition books, and treasures from Europe thought to have disappeared during World War II. Gamache begins wondering how Olivier has made such a success of the antiques side of his business. And where did Olivier, or for that matter, the victim, come from in the first place?

Louise Penny’s novels always have more going on in them than the mystery. The setting of the small village is beautiful. The characters are interesting, and we learn more about them with each visit. Gamache is warm and perceptive. As always, I think the covers of the paperback editions should win a prize for most beautiful artwork.

Day 296: The Cruelest Month

Cover for The Cruelest MonthThe village of Three Pines in remote southern Quebec has a psychic visiting, so bed and breakfast owner Gabri arranges a séance on Good Friday evening. It is not very successful, but some of the participants decide to try again at the deserted Hadley house the next night. A few additional people attend, and several of the group are filled with foreboding. The Hadley house has, after all, been the scene of frightful crimes.

In a dusty, candle-lit room, the participants hear a horrible noise and one of their party drops dead–Madeleine Favreau, a vibrant, popular woman who shares a house with Hazel Smyth. When Inspector Gamache and his team arrive, they find that someone has slipped Madeleine the banned drug ephedra, which, combined with a weak heart, has resulted in a fatal heart attack.

The investigators find motives for several of the people at the séance, mostly those of jealousy or thwarted love. But Gamache’s team is also dealing with its own problems. Senior officers want to destroy Gamache because of his role in accusing a popular superior officer of crimes years ago and so have inserted a spy into his team. However, they have found other ways to strike, as Gamache begins finding newspaper articles attacking him and his family.

As always with Louise Penny’s mysteries, the plot is compelling and Gamache and the other characters are interesting. Of course, it is unusual that a small village like Three Pines would suffer so many violent deaths, but it is a pleasure to continue revisiting the village and its inhabitants, so I think we have to suspend our disbelief. I also think the series deserves some kind of prize for the most beautiful cover art.

Day 180: The Beautiful Mystery

Cover for The Beautiful MysteryHundreds of years ago, a small order of monks travelled across the ocean from Europe to Canada and hid itself in the wilderness of Quebec away from the Inquisition. There they remained hidden until two years before the beginning of The Beautiful Mystery, when an inferior compact disk of stunningly beautiful Gregorian chants appeared and became popular worldwide. Reporters eventually traced the origins of the CD back to the remote monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. Pilgrimages to the monastery began, but no one was admitted. At the beginning of Louise Penny’s latest novel, two men, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir, arrive at the monastery and they are admitted. They have been summoned to investigate the murder of the monastery’s prior.

Gamache and Beauvoir soon discover that there is a serious rift among the monks, between the men who agree with the dead prior that the monastery should make another CD so it can pay for badly needed repairs and the men who believe the CD has ruined their peace. But it is much more difficult to determine who murdered the prior, who was also the choir conductor. A critical piece of evidence may be a scrap of paper the prior was clutching when he died, which contains neumes–the precursors to musical notation that indicate the rise and fall of the chants–and nonsense syllables in Latin.

Gamache’s and Beauvoir’s work is interrupted by the arrival of their superior, Superintendent Francoeur, a man who hates Gamache and is determined to destroy him. Soon it becomes obvious that his intent is to drive a wedge between Gamache and Beauvoir.

As always with Penny, the mystery is atmospheric and absorbing. I haven’t been happy lately, though, with the direction she has been taking Beauvoir.

Day 160: A Rule Against Murder

Cover for A Rule Against MurderI am going to read Louise Penny’s latest soon, so in preparation I thought I’d review an earlier Inspector Gamache book, A Rule Against Murder. Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are celebrating their anniversary at the remote but luxurious Manoir Bellechasse. The only other guests are the strange Finney family, there for a reunion. They intend to erect a statue on the grounds of the resort to the family patriarch, who is deceased. The Finneys are wealthy and privileged but treat each other and others with disdain.

Julia Martin, daughter of the family matriarch, Irene Finney, is attending the reunion for the first time in years, after her husband has been disgraced and imprisoned following a financial scandal. She is in the midst of divorcing him. The older brother is spiteful and his wife seems insecure. Gamache is surprised to find that “Spot” and his wife Claire, for whom the family has been waiting, are actually his friends from Three Pines, Peter and Clara Morrow. Unfortunately, Peter seems to revert to bad behavior under the family’s influence. The only pleasant member of the family is Irene’s second husband.

One night after a terrible storm they find Julia’s body, which has been crushed by the statue of her father. Gamache and his team must find out who murdered her, but they also must figure out how the huge statue could even have been moved.

As usual, I find Penny’s novels atmospheric and well written. Penny also creates believable and interesting characters. I am looking forward to reading her next book.

Day Seven: Bury Your Dead

Cover for Bury Your DeadLast fall I read about the series of mysteries by Louise Penny, some of which have received numerous mystery book awards. They all take place in Quebec and feature Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Bury Your Dead is not the first in the series, but it is the first one I read, and I wrote the most about it in my book diary. However, if you decide to read these books, you should make a special effort to read them in order, starting with Still Life. I did not, and I was sorry at times, because most of the books are set in the same small, charming village and you can sometimes tell who the murderer of a previous book is just by who is missing from the village in a later book. Also Bury Your Dead in particular reveals the outcome of the previous book, because Inspector Gamache decides that he perhaps did not get it right that time and sends his second to re-investigate.

That being said, I think I liked Bury Your Dead best of all the Penny books I have read, because it partly takes place in the fascinating Quebec City. That is where Inspector Gamache is recovering from a case that turned out horribly, during which he was badly injured.

He discovers a delightful building in the city, the Literary and Historical Society, full of old books and documents about the English population of the city, and he meets some of the historians. Then the body of a French-heritage historian who has been obsessed with finding the missing remains of Samuel de Champlain is found in the society’s basement, and the board of the society asks him to investigate. The board is particularly worried because there has been some strain between the English minority and the French majority in the city, some of it fostered by the dead historian.

In the meantime, Gamache has asked his second, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is also on leave, to return to the small village of Three Pines and find what they missed in the last case, as he is convinced they made a mistake.

While this is all happening, Gamache is haunted by the memories of the young agent who was held captive and died during the incident that injured both Gamache and Beauvoir.

The book skillfully follows both plots and flashbacks to the investigation that went wrong. The characters in this series are well developed and interesting. The plots are tight and the mysteries difficult to figure out. The small village setting could become problematic, because the cast of characters is limited, but so far I have been enjoying the books.