This is the fifth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series of crime novels, most of which take place in the small, secluded Quebecois village of Three Pines. I read the fourth novel, A Rule Against Murder, just a few months ago, and I wasn’t totally happy with it — something, I thought, to do with its taking place outside of the village, and without the cast of familiar characters Penny has taken so much trouble to develop. Fortunately, this novel is right back on track. Not only does it take place back in the beloved village, it is right back in the heart of the villagers themselves — the sometimes unnerving, self-deluded, terrified TELL-TALE HEART of the villagers.
The book opens with a shock: the body of an elderly man has been found at Olivier’s Bistro, murdered but not murdered on the premises. Who is he? Who murdered him? Who moved the body, and from where? The police (headed up by Gamache, of course) dive into their usual methods, tracing not just forensic evidence but emotional evidence. Gamache’s theory is that murder is sort of like the bursting of a psychic boil: somewhere, somehow, a nasty emotion has been left to fester, and this is the way it has ultimately manifested itself. Suspicion flits from one place to another: is it one of the people of the village (perhaps Olivier himself)? Is it the newcomers, Marc and Dominique Gilbert, whose plans for an elaborate retreat and spa are disrupting Three Pines? Is it Roar Parras, a longtime Czech resident whose past is shrouded in mystery? Or is it some evil that the victim brought upon himself? When the police discover a cabin in the woods apparently belonging to the dead man, Gamache and his team are shocked to discover the remote building is full of priceless antiquities, from first edition books to European treasures thought to have disappeared during WWII to startling carvings made by the dead man himself. The harsh light that this trove sheds on the murder also casts an unpleasant light on some important people in Three Pines — people we’ve gotten to know well over several books. The past catches up with the present here, and chaos comes with it.
I know that some of the appeal of this series to some readers is that Three Pines is so cozy, full of places and people where you’d like to spend time, maybe retire. Those readers may not have enjoyed this book as much, feeling that Penny had turned on her characters. But I enjoyed this entry in the series maybe most of all so far. The series can be a little too cozy for me at times, and The Brutal Telling reassured me that Three Pines isn’t a Stepford village. Penny can have a tendency to throw around references to art and poetry without making any real connections, but this book was more solid, and justified its elaborate construction. While it still didn’t have the deep sense of menace or consequence that, say, a Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith novel will give you, I appreciated what it did have: a genuine struggle with motivation, an exploration of lies and secrets, and some very serious foreshadowing for the next book — to which I’m very much looking forward.