Don't be fooled by the cozy setting. The latest Chief Inspector Gamache mystery has failure and betrayal just below the surface.
Louise Penny's mysteries might feature a picturesque village, complete with good food and a duck-owning, eccentric poet, but there is nothing cozy about them.
Penny writes with a moral rigor and depth that set her Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries apart. And while she believes in goodness, there's nothing fluffy or weak about it. It's a goodness that remains resolute in the face of failure and betrayal.
“Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed that light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places.” But the good chief inspector finds his belief system challenged in How the Light Gets In.
The multiple award-winning author's ninth novel takes its title from a stanza of Leonard Cohen's “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring,/Forget your perfect offering, /There's a crack in everything. /That's how the light gets in.”
It's hard to believe, but things have gotten worse for Gamache since the devastating conclusion of 2012's “The Beautiful Mystery.”
While Christmas is coming, it is not shaping up to be a Joyeux Noel in the homicide department of the the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache's most-trusted lieutenant, Jean-Guy Beauvoir – whom he'd once hoped to call son-in-law – is clutched firmly in the grip of an addiction to painkillers and is being manipulated by Gamache's corrupt superior.
The rest of his hand-picked team has either abandoned him or been reassigned by the same superior and replaced by a grinning crew of incompetent insubordinates. Only Isabelle LaCoste remains, and even she finds herself doubting the once-infallible Gamache.
So, it is with relief that Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines to do a favor for Myrna, the retired therapist-turned-bookstore owner. A friend and former patient, Constance, was supposed to spend Christmas with Myrna but never arrived. Gamache finds the 79-year-old Constance dead, having been attacked in her home. It turns out the privacy-loving woman was once part of the most famous family in Canada. Constance was one of the surviving Ouellet Quints, who were taken from their farming parents during the Great Depression and turned into public curiosities.
Penny pretty clearly draws inspiration from the bleak story of the Dionne quintuplets, who made the government of Ontario an estimated $500 million during the years they were Canada's largest tourist attraction. (The government made them wards of the state to “protect” them from exploitation.) Thousands of people would come to “Quintland” and gawk at the girls, who were on view through one-way glass. They were used to sell everything from Madame Alexander dolls to Palmolive, according to reports. After their father successfully won an eight-year court battle to have his daughters returned home, things didn't get any better. They were resented by their other siblings, they found their mother cold, and the three remaining sisters alleged in the mid-1990s that their dad sexually molested them.
As Gamache tries to work out who in the world would want to kill Constance, he also is looking into the apparent suicide of a woman who jumped from the Champlain Bridge and trying to outmaneuver the malevolent superintendent, who may not rest at having Gamache viewed as a paranoid dinosaur by the rest of the department.
The inhabitants of Three Pines remain a prime attraction for both Gamache and readers, but the plotting in “How the Light Gets In” is particularly fine, as Penny juggles the three simultaneous cases. Characters and events from previous novels are woven in, as if Penny had been carefully navigating toward this moment for years. (One character's arc is definitely rushed, but long-time fans are not likely to mind.) And the resolution of the corruption case is among the most satisfying I've read all year.