Book Review: Chief Inspector Gamache Series by Louise Penny

Well … of the first five of the series (which has now reached 10 books and a novella!)

Life is choice. All day, everyday. Who we talk to, where we sit, what we say, how we say it. And our lives become defined by our choices. It’s as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. so when I’m observing that’s what I’m watching for. The choices people make.

Still Life, Louise Penny

I got into these books in a round-about way.

I was stuck in California (yeah I know, poor me), away from my dear Canada, and missing everything Canadian as a result. I looked online to find some Canadian popular lit I hadn’t read before, with partiular attention to mystery books and found Still Life. Then I realized that it was the first in a line of books with the same (or mostly the same) characters set in Quebec with (OMG yes!) French phrases in them and references to things like “double-doubles” and the Quiet Revolution – things I grew up understanding, dammnit. It was like reading a piece of home.

So, of course, I devoured the first five books (the ones I could get my hands on until now) – reading them in order, one after the other, savouring every hint of Canadian-ness. The “ou”s; the references to Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal; even the same political jokes I’ve heard my whole life! It was wonderful!

And so here I am, reviewing in mini – the first five mystery books of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache – officer of the Sûreté du Québec and head of homicide. They mostly center around the little town of Three Pines, which is home to an assortment of delightfully crazy characters all with their own troubles of which, as a reader, you’re privy to every so often. It is mostly a town of Anglos, a factor that gets replayed a lot by Gamache’s second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Added to the current murder mysteries Gamache is investigating is the complicated fallout from his actions pre-series, that involve his uncovering police corruption (explained in installments between books 1 through 3 mostly.) Overall, the mysteries are fun – not only because they’re wound so tightly that I had trouble guessing who the killer would end up being, but also because the characters are all so entertaing – from Clara and Peter Morrow (artists) to Ruth Zardo (Crazy old Poet) to Myrna the book seller to Gabri & Olivier (the gay couple who own the B&B and the local Bistro) – they’re all so endearing in their own ways, even if you sometimes hate them, sometimes love them or often times are just confused by them.

First, before I get into the reviews, a little something about Canada – and more narrowly, Quebec – so you understand some of the nuances of the books: Canada is a pretty large country with two national languages, French and English. The “french part” of Canada that is usually referred to is the province of Quebec (though it has been said that the only truly bilingual part of Canada is New Brunswick), and the Quebecois (re. people of Quebec who speak French) have a distinct history that maintains its seperation from the Anglo-history of Canada. This includes the repression of the French language until about half a century ago (though some maintain it is still repressed today) with the Quiet Revolution. Montreal – where Gamache lives – is the biggest city in Quebec and a cultural hub. The Boy went to Uni there for four years, so I got to know it a little better than I would have otherwise. It is a criss-cross of galleries, good food, interesting architecture and most people speak English, if you’re hesitant to visit. The capital of Quebec is Quebec City – I highly recommend a visit there, and it is surrounded by tonnes of villages and rural communities with grand churches and cathedrals, farms and my most favourite thing – maple syrup. Lots of maple syrup.

With that brief (and admittedly biased) background, let’s dive in.

Still Life

Synopsis:

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montréal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a long-time resident of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more but Gamache smells something foul this holiday season…and is soon certain that Jane died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.

With this award-winning first novel, Louise Penny introduces an engaging hero in Inspector Gamache, who commands his forces—and this series—with power, ingenuity, and charm

The first book opens up on a cold Thanksgiving (for those non-Canadians, Canadian Thanksgiving is on the second Monday of the month of October). We open up with a murder – the murder of Jane – a much beloved resident of Three Pines, Quebec. Clara Morrow finds the body – she was like a daughter to the childless Jane, and soon the police are called in to investigate. The team of police is led by Chief Inspector Gamache, a Montrealer with an excellent command of English and a top notch reputation for finding killers. And as he falls in love with Three Pines, he also encounters no absence of suspects – everyone seeming to be harbouring a secret of their own. He just must determine which secret would require a killing to keep quiet.

This book is all about the twists and turns – everything that seems irrelevant at first, turns out to be anything but, and the relations between people are held to a higher regard than anything else. Gamache is a self-described observer of people. He prefers to sit back and watch his underlings interview suspects, and allows a great deal of insolence among his proteges in order to uncover the truth. He’s an intellectual in cop’s clothing – he can recite poetry and complicated points of philosophy as well as joke around in French and English. He’s a wonderful character, even with his faults. Or maybe especially because of them.

The plot itself gets a little hairy – there is a point where you’re wondering what the big deal is exactly – but it all makes sense in the end. There is something charming about the town of suspects, the way they turn on one another in very subtle ways – still unbelieving that any of their neighbours could be a killer and yet at the same time, wary. There is also tension between the officers as a new recruit – both blunt and too cocky for her own good – joins the team with mixed results.

My favourite scenes were the dinner parties between the core group of neighbours and Gamache, the descriptions of the food in this novel and the ones that follow it leave you hungry, and the interactions between the people leave you wondering what is left unsaid. Penny has a wonderful way with words – building tension into each glance and shake of the head, the silent musings and actions of her characters speaking louder than their words.

The killer will stump you. The plot twists around itself so that you know who the killer is before Gamache confronts them, but your left with this gut-wrenching feeling as the plot continues forward without any resolution – people in danger, alliances broken and friendships destroyed. It’s a wonderfully complicated ending to a great mystery book that has you guessing until the reveal and then doesn’t make a labour of explaining what just happened for the previous 300 pages.

All in all – a delightful cozy mystery!

 

A Fatal Grace

Synopsis:

Welcome to winter in Three Pines, a picturesque village in Quebec, where the villagers are preparing for a traditional country Christmas, and someone is preparing for murder.


No one liked CC de Poitiers. Not her quiet husband, not her spineless lover, not her pathetic daughter—and certainly none of the residents of Three Pines. CC de Poitiers managed to alienate everyone, right up until the moment of her death.


When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec, is called to investigate, he quickly realizes he’s dealing with someone quite extraordinary. CC de Poitiers was electrocuted in the middle of a frozen lake, in front of the entire village, as she watched the annual curling tournament. And yet no one saw anything. Who could have been insane enough to try such a macabre method of murder—or brilliant enough to succeed?


With his trademark compassion and courage, Gamache digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life to find the dangerous secrets long buried there. For a Quebec winter is not only staggeringly beautiful but deadly, and the people of Three Pines know better than to reveal too much of themselves. But other dangers are becoming clear to Gamache. As a bitter wind blows into the village, something even more chilling is coming for Gamache himself.

Ah, Winter. Canadian winter. I won’t say I miss you exactly … but I do sense your absence here.

This story picks up well after the events of the last book, but with (more or less) the same characters in Three Pines. Being winter there’s a lot about the snow, the cold, the wetness and the fires that roar at the bistro, everything that makes me miss Canadian winters!

The plot itself is intriguing: it involves the intricate murder of a selfish and conceited (and mean spirited woman) at the town gathering in front of everyone. And yet … no one saw anything.

This book is very good at beginning to divide the characters – there’s a sharp contrast between various friends, enemies, townspeople and police – even where the alliances seemed pretty air tight. You get some more background on Gamache’s career path, though you are still woefully out of your depth yet, and the real character development really begins with Clara Morrow (probably my favourite character).

The twists of this mystery were beyond brilliant – it’s one of those “She got me! She got me again!” pieces where you are so sure you know everything there is to know, and then suddenly there’s more. It’s a great mystery and I think it’s a wonderful addition to the series!

 

The Cruelest Month

Synopsis

Welcome to Three Pines, where the cruellest month is about to deliver on its threat.


It’s spring in the tiny, forgotten village; buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. But not everything is meant to return to life. . .
When some villagers decide to celebrate Easter with a seance at the Old Hadley House, they are hoping to rid the town of its evil — until one of their party dies of fright. Was this a natural death, or was the victim somehow helped along?


Brilliant, compassionate Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the SQ (Sûreté du Québec) is called to investigate, in a case that will force him to face his own ghosts as well as those of a seemingly idyllic town where relationships are far more dangerous than they seem.

Now we’re in Springtime. Easter to be precise. And it’s a beautiful time in Three Pines. And so of course, after a long into, we’re witness to another complex murder seen in front of everyone – but how is this possible? Really, it’s genius and props to Penny for writing this out, I think this mystery is my favourite so far!

This story focuses a lot more on backgrounds, or the idea of love/hate and how we reinvent ourselves through tragedy, love and time. As with the previous novels, the stories of all suspects and witnesses and investigators are dealt with to some degree, including Armand Gamache. Finally, here, you get the background you waited for – the reasons for his alienation inside of the Sûreté and the various fallouts from it. You also get a deeper, rare, insight into Ruth Zardo (my other favourite character) and the prose never seems heavy handed or oblique.

The mystery itself is the most complicated of the mysteries yet – the killer and the reasons for killing are murky and heart breaking and not obvious, something that eats away at you as you ever so slowly come to realize who it is and why. The struggle of Gamache and his team against the various roadblocks set against them are both thrilling and frustratingly so, unfolding over the whole of the story to a conclusion that seems to leave the door open for more.

All in all, a good story – no huge plot twists, but a solid telling of murder and means, very well done!

 

A Rule Against Murder

Synopsis

It is the height of summer, and Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are celebrating their wedding anniversary at Manoir Bellechasse, an isolated, luxurious inn not far from the village of Three Pines. But they’re not alone. The Finney family — rich, cultured, and respectable — has also arrived for a celebration of their own.


The beautiful Manoir Bellechasse might be surrounded by nature, but there is something unnatural looming. As the heat rises and the humidity closes in, some surprising guests turn up at the family reunion, and a terrible summer storm leaves behind a dead body. It is up to Chief Inspector Gamache to unearth secrets long buried and hatreds hidden behind polite smiles. The chase takes him to Three Pines, into the dark corners of his own life, and finally to a harrowing climax

What a way to end a vacation, eh?

This is the first Gamache novel set outside Three Pines, but still set in Quebec. More specifically in a gorgeous hotel manor house outside of Montreal. The descriptions of lush forests (and bugs!) and serene lake make it a very cozy mystery – the whole of the story taking place within the confines of the house, the suspects all contained within the house and the house itself groaning and opening to various elements of the story.

I can’t say much about the plot without giving it away – the twists begin pretty early on in the story, and they keep going. But I will say this: as far as a cozy mystery goes, this has the right amount of suspects, suspense and secrets that make reading a cozy mystery fun.

The ending, the killer and the means to kill, all ingenius as per usual for Penny. She truly has a gift for writing the most interesting manners of murder. This installment is light on the general understanding of Gamache’s career, but still maintains that balance of mystery/understanding that comes with all discussions of Gamache’s life – in this case, more focused on his family than his career, but still very informative.

Again, the character development of various characters sticks out – but given the spoilers, I will just say that it is a pleasure to watch favourite characters struggle with raw emotions and tense situations.

 

 

A Brutal Telling

Synopsis

Chaos is coming, old son.
With those words the peace of Three Pines is shattered. As families prepare to head back to the city and children say goodbye to summer, a stranger is found murdered in the village bistro and antiques store. Once again, Chief Inspector Gamache and his team are called in to strip back layers of lies, exposing both treasures and rancid secrets buried in the wilderness.
 
No one admits to knowing the murdered man, but as secrets are revealed, chaos begins to close in on the beloved bistro owner, Olivier. How did he make such a spectacular success of his business? What past did he leave behind and why has he buried himself in this tiny village? And why does every lead in the investigation find its way back to him?
As Olivier grows more frantic, a trail of clues and treasures— from first editions of Charlotte’s Web and Jane Eyre to a spider web with the word “WOE” woven in it—lead the Chief Inspector deep into the woods and across the continent in search of the truth, and finally back to Three Pines as the little village braces for the truth and the final, brutal telling.

 

This is a good book to end off my mini reviews of this series. Not only because it brings us back to Three Pines (yay!) but also because it begins to cleave at the relationships we’ve already established with certain characters and their satisfaction with their own circumstances.

Of particular note is Beauvoir’s character – usually the brash, scientifically-minded, hard ass –and he still is all those things, and yet in this story we begin to see a softer side of him, a side that sees more clearly the conseuqences of decisions on the people around him. Also of note is Clara Morrow’s character (who can’t seem to get a break!) who remains the same in many ways, but also a lot more than she was originally. She keeps growing within the confines of her own character, and I honestly think she is the epitome of the complicated character.

The story itself is complicated. A man dies – but no one is sure where, and everyone’s holding out on the Inspector. No one seems to be able to tell him the truth about anything, and we begin to question everyone’s secrets and motivations.

This was not an easy one to finish – the ending left me sort of miffed and confused – the ending is straight forward enough, but I kept wondering if the other foot was ever going to drop. In the end, I think this is the book that will set up future stories, since it left a lot open.

 

All in all – a series I highly recommend! Her latest is just out, so what a wonderful time to get into the series!

 

 

 

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