THE BRUTAL TELLING By Louise Penny, Headline, 374 pages, $24.95
"Every Quebec village has a vocation. … Some make cheese, some wine, some pots. We produce bodies."
That's the epitaph for Three Pines, the exquisite little locale where Louise Penny sets her elegantly plotted mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec. Three Pines is supposed to be in the English Townships, close to the Vermont border. It is, of course, like Agatha Christie's little villages, a place of the imagination, where death is merely the entry that leads to the puzzle of whodunit.
But Penny isn't Christie. For a start, she's a far more accomplished craftsman, relying more on depth of character than formula. She also likes a complex plot that owes more to human emotion and psychology than to clockwork timing. That makes her closer to P.D. James than to the estimable Dame Agatha, and it means we get a lot more book for our buck, even though we know from the outset that the village will survive and the eccentric residents continue.
This is Penny's fourth novel, so we've already met some of the regulars: Gamache, of course, and his good wife, Reine-Marie; the painters Clara and Peter Morrow; Ruth the mad poetess; Myra the bookstore owner; and Gabri and Olivier, the gay couple who own the local bistro. The Old Hadley House, which had a major role in a previous novel, comes back transformed, and the village itself still lingers in the golden sunlight, quiet and deadly.
The dead body that gets things rolling is an elderly man known only to Olivier as the Hermit. He has been living alone in a cabin in the woods, praying and claiming that Chaos and an army of dread is on its way to do terrible things to Three Pines. It appears that the first victim of this terror is the Hermit himself, but no one knows about the Chaos because Olivier, who took him food the night before, isn't about to admit that he was, perhaps, the last man to see the Hermit, or even to admit that he had been seeing him. That's a difficult task when the body is left on the floor of the bistro. A message to Olivier? A message to someone else? And just who was this strange, nameless man, anyhow?
In the village with a vocation for bodies, Gamache finds himself faced with a number of possible suspects, none of whom he really wants to arrest and convict. That's always Gamache's weak spot. He's too intelligent to ignore the evil and too kind to believe its corrosive power. He's one of the most interesting of the current crop of detectives, and certainly one of the best in a Canadian setting.
As always, Penny pulls everything together beautifully and the village is restored to order by the end - a must in these books. It's still fun to follow Gamache's clever uncovering of the clues, the mystery of the Hermit and the identity of the killer. This is the best Gamache novel so far. It should be a contender for the Arthur Ellis for this year.
HYPOTHERMIA By Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb, Random House Canada, 313 pages, $32
If you haven't already discovered this superb series set in Reykjavik, this is the book to begin with. This is the sixth English translation from Indridason and, while the other five are superb, this is simply his best, irresistible from first page to final line.
Indridason's power is his ability to take us right into the action, and he uses Reykjavik in the same way Raymond Chandler used Los Angeles. The streets and, in this novel, a lake, are characters, weaving their own mysteries, along with the humans who inhabit them.
The central place is Lake Thingvellir, where long ago those presumed to be adulterers were drowned as punishment. Now, a woman has hanged herself there in her family's holiday cottage. It's obviously suicide; her mother had died recently and the two were extremely close. Then there's the family history, another tragedy at the cottage.
Detective Erlendur of the Reykjavik police is satisfied that it was suicide, but he's haunted by it just the same. And so he goes on a quest to uncover as much information about the dead woman as he can and, as her life is revealed, Erlendur is convinced that there is still a mystery about her death.
Indridason is one of the best of the new European authors coming into English, right up there with Henning Mankell and Karen Fossum. Along with the great story, we get some insight into Icelandic sagas and myths, which are woven into the narrative. If all you know about Iceland is volcanoes and the currency crash, Hypothermia is a great way to learn more.
THIS THING OF DARKNESS By Barbara Fradkin, RendezVous, 344 pages, $16.95
Is a reader supposed to find a character comfortable? That's the case with many of the long-term series where a new book seems like a meeting with a really nice casual friend. I find Barbara Fradkin's Inspector Green of the Ottawa RCMP a very comfortable man. I know his habits, his family (including the recently arrived daughter Hannah) and his investigative style. For those who like a solid classic mystery with added character, Inspector Green is perfect. This Thing Of Darkness, one of Fradkin's best, takes the good Inspector as far as this formula permits.
Green and his family are having a morning out in Ottawa's Byward Market when the outing is spoiled by the discovery of a body. The victim is an elderly man, beaten so brutally that he's unrecognizable. There is no identification and it looks like an ordinary mugging gone very wrong. Good-quality clothing and a gold Star of David are all Green has to go on.
The dead man turns out to be a controversial psychiatrist with an estranged family and plenty of enemies. Green has to journey back into the doctor's life in order to find out exactly who he is and why he was so savagely killed.
ARCTIC BLUE DEATH By R.J. Harlick, RendezVous, 360 pages, $16.95
The fourth book in the excellent Meg Harris series by Ottawa author R.J. Harlick is the best. The earlier novels introduced a woman who was settling into the Quebec wilderness, drinking too much, recovering from a bad marriage, and, of course, solving mysteries. This outing is more carefully plotted as Meg has to go to the High Arctic to uncover the mystery of her own father's death. The records show his plane crashed decades ago, but Inuit drawings sent to her mother seem to indicate that, after 36 years, he may be alive. Harlick has a great plot here and she takes it and runs.
SHAKE THE DEVIL OFF By Ethan Brown, Henry Holt, 285 pages, $32
The subtitle bills this as "A true story of the murder that rocked New Orleans." It may not have really rocked the city - not after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina - but it sure is a terrible tale. Zackery Bowen was a handsome Iraq War veteran who fell hard for a beautiful artist named Addie Hall. Hall was a woman beset with demons, while Bowen faced his own horrors. When he leaped to his death, police found a note in his pocket directing them to Addie's dead body. The dead were obvious, but the real crimes here were war and child abuse. Ethan Brown has done a great job bringing this pitiless story into a readable form.
HIT & MRS. By Lesley Crewe, Vagrant Press, 248 pages, $19.95
If you're in the mood for a cute chick-lit mystery with some nice gals in Montreal, Hit & Mrs. is just the ticket. This third novel by Cape Breton's Lesley Crewe follows in the footsteps of light fare like Olivia Goldsmith's First Wives' Club. The "Book Bags" are four Montreal friends of a certain age who have known each other since grade school. Linda, Bette, Gemma and Augusta have kids and parents and in-laws and plenty of problems, but when they head to New York for a weekend getaway, they kill a cabbie and wind up in no end of trouble.