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'Glass Houses' is yet another excellent Louise Penny mystery

Penny – whose books wind up on Best Novels of the Year lists, not 'just' Best Mysteries – is a one-woman argument against literary snobbery.

Glass Houses By Louise Penny Minotaur Books 400 pp.
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No one is doing any whistling, but Louise Penny lets conscience be the guide in her top-notch new mystery, Glass Houses.

A masked man in black shows up at a Halloween party in the small Canadian village of Three Pines and then doesn’t leave – standing silently on the village green, breaking no laws but shattering the townsfolk’s peace. The novel is told through the testimony of Armand Gamache, now director of the Sûreté, being treated as a hostile witness in a murder trial.

After 2013’s exquisitely crafted “How the Light Gets In,” it was hard to see how Chief Inspector Gamache could do anything but ride into the sunset. Then came “A Great Reckoning” and now “Glass Houses” and it’s become plain that that novel simply marked a new level for the award-winning Penny, who along with writers such as Tana French and the late P.D. James, operates at a different metabolism than many expect when it comes to mysteries. (“The Long Way Home” in 2014 was less satisfying, but still well-plotted.)

The knock on genre writing, as people who love to really read know, has always been unfairly dismissive. Penny – whose books wind up on Best Novels of the Year lists, not “just” Best Mysteries – is a one-woman argument against literary snobbery.

Readers come to Three Pines for the murders and the quirky villagers – Ruth, the foul-mouthed poet-sage and her duck, Rosa; Myrna, the retired therapist turned bookstore owner – but stay for the celebration of kindness and friendship, the plumbing of the nature of morality, and the musings on the creation of art and its purpose.

“Glass Houses,” for instance, ponders the role of conscience – going to depths far beyond those of a well-meaning talking cricket.  

“A peace above all earthly dignities,” Myrna quotes Shakespeare to her friends. “A still and quiet conscience.”

Later, Ruth says to Myrna: “It’s generally thought a conscience is a good thing, but let me ask you this: How many terrible things are done in the name of conscience? It’s a great excuse for appalling acts.”

It turns out the man in black is a collector of debts – but in this case, not the financial kind. To say more would be to give too much away and deny readers part of the joy of reading “Glass Houses.”

As she showed with “How the Light Gets In,” Penny is a master of the slow burn, with readers only seeing the final pattern as everything is set aflame. As the novel’s sense of impending dread mounts, she works in everything from “Pinocchio” to the Bible, conquistador Hernán Cortés to 14th-century theologian Julian of Norwich, Prohibition to today’s opioid epidemic, before the pieces snap into focus for the explosive ending.

At one point, Gamache’s wife, Reine-Marie, asks how things are going with the trial.

“It’s hard to tell,” he says. “So many things have to come together just right. There seems such a fine line between falling into place and falling part.”

In “Glass Houses,” both Penny and her main character walk that line with grace and resolve.