The fourth book in Louise Penny’s series of mysteries starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place (for once) away from the cozy village of Three Pines. (Three Pines suffers a little from Cabot Cove/ Midsomer/ St Mary Mead Syndrome, where a small village has way more than its fair share of brutal murders.) This time, the Inspector and his wife, Reine-Marie, are on vacation, celebrating their wedding anniversary at Québec’s top auberge, Manoir Bellechasse. The luxurious inn, normally a peaceful haven for its young staff as well as for its happy guests, is troubled this summer: it’s the site of a family reunion for the Finney family. Is it enough to say the Finneys are dysfunctional? Perhaps not. They are spiteful, malicious, unkind, secretive, manipulative, snobbish, and champions at holding grudges. Hooray for family reunions! So perhaps it is not as much of a surprise as it could be when a member of the family winds up dead: it is really only the method of the murder that raises any eyebrows. (Crushed by a huge marble statue, rather as in the prologue to Masterpiece Mystery.)
The ins and outs of the Finney family history are tortuous enough for Gamache and his helpers, Beauvoir and Lacoste, to investigate, let alone the mysterious past of the staff. Complicating the situation still further is that Gamache’s friends from Three Pines, Peter and Clara Morrow, are part of the family — and family pressures and dynamics are causing them to revert to type, so that instead of being the warm and loving couple Gamache knows, they are prickly, resentful, and cutting. The Finneys also know something dark in Gamache’s own private history, and are willing to use it to their advantage if they possibly can. Gamache works against time in the hot summer air to find the murderer among this group of tightly-wound, angry people.
I thought this mystery was significantly weaker than the first three I’ve read by Penny. Perhaps it’s the setting — a locked-room mystery of sorts, with its isolated auberge — or the missing interwoven characters from Three Pines, since those are familiar old friends. Whatever it was, the mystery felt oddly shallow to me this time, more a conglomeration of unpleasant people than a real tangle of motivations and histories. This book has a lot of the hallmarks of Penny’s writing, such as loving descriptions of luxurious food and drink about every three pages, and oddly choppy paragraphs (she really likes the one-sentence paragraph!) These sorts of things, however, I can ignore or even enjoy when the mystery and characters are satisfying. Gamache himself still stands out as a great inspector, though even here, in A Rule Against Murder, Penny spends a lot of time telling us he’s good, telling us he walks into the darkness past logic, rather than letting that show. For those of you who have read this series — is this a blip? How do you like the rest of the books?