- Kingdom of the Blind
- By Louise Penny
- Published by Minotaur, 386 pages
There is a point where I’ve run out of superlatives and this is it. Louise Penny is the best mystery novelist in Canada. If you doubt that, just sit down and read Kingdom of the Blind, her fourteenth Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache novel, and be swept into the perfect village in the grip of the perfect storm. Here, the drama is in the atmosphere and the descriptions.
Penny always opens her novels with a bang and this one is a beaut. Under glowering clouds and the promise of snow, Gamache is summoned to a ramshackle farmhouse that belonged to Bertha Baumgartner, a deceased woman who claimed to be a baroness but who worked as a domestic. His invitation is from a dead lawyer. Eventually, another invitee arrives, Myrna, who runs the Three Pines bookstore. Why are they here? Gamache surveys the abandoned house and recalls the child’s nursery rhyme about the crooked man who walked a crooked mile, found a sixpence, brought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse, “and they all lived together in a little crooked house.” What mystery is here?
The crooked house and its eventual collapse is the main mystery, but fans know to expect several lines of suspense in a Gamache book and the action leads back, first, to the idyllic village of Three Pines. A particularly harsh Quebec winter is building to a blizzard. As the temperature drops to -35, and the drifts build, the villagers gather at the local inn for comfort and companionship. They know that the beauty of the countryside in snow is also a killer. This contrast of beauty and death is always the soul of Penny’s books. But the ongoing characters, particularly Ruth Zardo, the cranky poet and her foul-mouthed fowl friend the duck, never lose their ability to charm and also add to the plot. As well, they enable Penny to keep her delightful Three Pines fresh book after book.
Along with the baroness’s crooked house, which collapses and kills a man, Gamache has more on his plate. Regular readers will remember that in his previous outing, he managed to break a large international drug cartel; however, a shipment of drugs used as a diversion disappeared and Gamache was blamed. Many of the drugs have been rounded up, but he’s still on suspension by the Sûreté du Québec, so that investigation continues as well.
Plot lines converge when Gamache makes a trip to Montreal. If Three Pines is exquisite, clean beauty, the city is a squalid place of excrement, puke and crime. Gamache is confronted by open prostitution in the daylight and a failure of law enforcement. Does he even want to return to this world? Another conflict between beauty and duty.
The fallen world and the pure light of reason are Louise Penny’s place in mystery fiction. Her plots are complex and modern. Her characters, whether whimsical or desperate, have depth. They have actual heft in the story. And, of course, she’s a master of Canada in print. Yes, we are nice and we have charm and we band together in the harshness of our climate, but there is a true passion here and that’s what really sets Penny apart and makes her the best. Fourteen books in a series is all too often the beginning of a slide for authors who tire of the place, the people or the plot lines. Louise Penny appears to have only begun to write.