This is the seventh of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache books, and it finds us back in the Québecois village of Three Pines, after the explosive events of the last two novels. Aftershocks from those events are still affecting the characters, and the book’s main theme is forgiveness. When is forgiveness possible, and when is it unthinkable? When is it presumptuous, selfish, or even manipulative merely to ask for forgiveness? When, on the other hand, is forgiveness the only thing that can save a life?
I once saw a reviewer describe Three Pines as “rather like Brigadoon if Brigadoon had a nonstop crime wave.” This made me laugh out loud, because the contrast between the utter, cozy perfection of the small village and the closeness of its inhabitants on the one hand, and the… what… something like fifteen recent murders on the other, is somewhat striking. We all want to live in Three Pines, but I suggest investing in a good home security system.
A Trick of the Light focuses on Clara Morrow, a brilliant artist who has been in her husband Peter’s shadow for years but suddenly finds herself a celebrity with a solo show at a major museum in Montréal. There’s a party that night in Three Pines, and the next morning, there’s a dead body in Clara’s garden. It’s Lillian Dyson, a woman who used to be close friends with Clara until she wrote a scathing review of her art. When it comes out that Lillian was a recovering alcoholic in AA, trying to make amends for some of the damage she’d caused by other vitriolic reviews of struggling artists, motives for the murder proliferate. Who couldn’t forgive Lillian?
There are a lot of good things about this book. Penny’s characterization of recovering alcoholics is fairly surefooted. Her portrait of the cracks in the Morrow marriage is good, too, and has been several books coming; this arc is probably the most interesting one to me. I’ll also be interested to see how the relationship between Gamache and his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, plays out. Penny is deft at building our interest in these characters over time. She always writes well about landscape and food. My complaint about her prose still stands, though. Reviewers often talk about her “eloquence” or her “fluid, graceful” prose, but I can’t see it. She loves short, choppy sentences and repetition, often putting a single word alone on a line. Here’s an example, pulled at random from the second chapter (we are at Clara’s solo show, looking at the pictures):
Some were clustered close together. Like a gathering. Some hung alone, isolated. Like this one.
The most modest of the portraits, on the largest of the walls.
Without competition, or company. An island nation. A sovereign portrait.
Wait, I don’t get it. Was it the only picture on that wall? Or what?
So besides some stylistic quirks that I can’t unsee, I quite enjoy Penny. If you’re looking for a not-quite-cozy mystery that is more interested in the redemptive psychology of its characters than in their grim downfall, definitely try this series.