Written by Louise Penny — One of the most haunting and lyrical novels I’ve read in recent years is The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny. It served as my introduction to Canadian police officer Armand Gamache and is a book I’ve continued to recommend to anyone who will listen.
That was number eight in the series and since then Gamache has gone through the mill. He retired from the force and moved to the sleepy village of Three Pines for some peace and quiet. This is crime fiction, though, so it wasn’t long before he was embroiled in another case. Now we’ve reached book 13 and he’s back in harness once more. And as Chief Superintendent and head of the Sûreté du Québec, Gamache is holding a poisoned chalice.
The Sûreté is still reeling from a corruption scandal that touched every level of provincial law enforcement. Public confidence is at rock bottom and crime is running rife. Though it appears that Gamache and his staff are doing precious little to stem the tide, our hero has a cunning plan…
I’m getting ahead of myself somewhat, because we’ve miles to go before we reach any clear indication of what Gamache has in mind. First, you’ll need to get accustomed to being bungee jumped between timelines. This story plays out both in the present, where Gamache is being cross-examined by the prosecution in a high-profile murder trial, and several months in the past, as the tightly-knit community of Three Pines is rocked by the arrival of a sinister, wraith-like figure who puts everyone on edge.
The silent watcher is swathed in black, hooded and masked. Who is he or she, and what do they want in Three Pines? At first it is dismissed as some elaborate, over dramatic Halloween joke, but then a murder occurs and the figure is nowhere to be found. Some locals were calling the watcher Death. It begins to look as if they were correct.
Gamache and his son-in-law and second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir will have their mettle tested to the limit before this tale is over. As you will too, because this is a book that needs both concentration and determination to see it to the end. Penny has knitted a particularly dense fabric this time, and there is plenty of heart-searching by the main protagonists before all is finally revealed. There are myriad mysteries to be solved but as Gamache fans know, he is the man for such a job and he has a familiar cast of supporting characters to help (or hinder) his progress.
That hop-skipping between plotlines demonstrates what a skilful writer Louise Penny is, contrasting the highly-charged courtroom scenes in a hot, humid Québec summer with chilly, oncoming winter moments in a village that is used to being cosy and without care, but now has been visited by evil. However, I felt the device created a jerky narrative and became almost plodding on occasion, making me long for The Beautiful Mystery once more.
Glass Houses is a solid piece of work, literally as well as figuratively, as it fills almost 400 hardback pages. There are times when you will do well to stand up and walk away for a time to digest the latest revelations and ponder upon how it will play out with everything else you’ve learned. It’s a book you’ll need to commit to, if you want to fully appreciate the nuances created by a writer who has won a cabinet full of awards for her work.
Louise Penny is a Crime Fiction Lover favourite and featured in Canada 150: The best Canadian crime novels of all time.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars