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review: crime fiction

Louise Penny

We are returned to the perfect country village: lilac-scented air, superb cuisine at the local auberge, a wonderful bookstore and congenial, interesting people for conversation. It is, of course, Three Pines, the paradise in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where one can find peace and a kind of perfection, at least until murder rears its head … again.

The twist of beauty into death and back again is the heart of Louise Penny's seventh and best mystery set in Three Pines. There is a murder, of course. The dead woman appears at first as a pair of feet in red slippers, a re-creation of the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. But is she a witch or is the image a trick of the light? That's only one of many tricks Penny has in store in a plot that is marginally about murder and all about the indestructibility of hope.

The dead body is in Clara Morrow's garden, and appears on the biggest night of Clara's life, the party celebrating her solo art show at a gala vernissage in Montreal. Everyone who is anyone is there, and the show is a triumph for Clara, recognition at last. It is Clara's use of light that sets her art apart, but art can be illusion, a ruse born of a trick of that same light. And it's illusion that puts a body in Clara's garden.

The case falls to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his deputy, Jean Guy Beauvoir. Both Gamache and Beauvoir are recovering from wounds received in a confrontation where four of their officers died. A video of the events found its way to the Internet and gone viral, turning Gamache into a reluctant national hero. Beauvoir watches it compulsively, seeing himself wounded over and over. As the two hunt for a new murderer, they are bound by the events of the past.

The road to the murderer seems clear. The dead woman was a former art critic, savage and cruel, who used her position to ruin careers and damage lives. She was also a childhood friend of Clara's, but this was all 20 years ago. Where she has been and why she is back are all part of the mystery of who could have killed her, and why. And why was she in Three Pines, a place so remote that it appears on no maps and can be found only by those who know where it is?

Penny's somewhat jaded view of the arts scene, with its cynical dealers and powerful critics, makes a grand backdrop for this story. It also allows her to develop her continuing images of illusion and tricks of light so that everything flows beautifully. As she develops the clues to the murder, she takes us back into the lives and needs of all the major characters, just as Clara's art takes us from the depth of despair to the glimmer of hope. There are many themes explored here: love, change, belief, even the old question of what makes art art. Penny doesn't hesitate to bring them all into a form that begins in a fanciful rural village modelled on Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead and which, once the murderer is found, returns to its exquisite self, with some changes only visible in the light.

This is a beautiful book, gorgeously written and carefully constructed. Penny's fans will adore it and those who haven't already discovered her should begin here. That said, irritating flaws in editing show up more sharply in good books than mediocre ones, and while one character may uncover the kindness in Chief Inspector Gamache's dark eyes, by the fourth repetition, he sounds like a beagle. These and other minor bobbles stand out here like bugs on a biscuit. Penny and Gamache deserve better.

Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail's crime-fiction reviewer.

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