The Beautiful Mysteries of Louise Penny

A Readallday reader recommended Louise Penny to me over the summer, and with her new book, A Beautiful Mystery, coming out, I thought I’d dive right in.

“Oh, no,” the reader told me. “Start with the first book and read them through in order. You’ll want the order…”

She was absolutely right. I started with Still Life and over the past month have read — no, inhaled — the eight wonderful novels of Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache: Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, and A Beautiful Mystery.

Great novels, each one, and now I am left with the agony of waiting for the next installment. A whole year? I cannot wait that long! Write quickly, dear Ms. Penny, write quickly!

Penny’s novels are rich and full, intelligent and entertaining, and worthy of all the many awards they’ve garnered (including the Agatha Award for Best Novel, and the Dilys, Arthur Ellis, Anthony, Macavity, and Nero Awards).

Set in the province of Quebec, Penny uses the history of old Canada to set up her characters, and illustrate their differing personalities and backgrounds. She then takes on huge themes — memory, guilt, hope, love, friendship — that are amplified but never overtaken by the murder mystery the quietly heroic and hugely kind Inspector Gamache must solve, time after time — and time and again in the tiny but absolutely enchanting village of Three Pines, with its lively citizenry of artists, a poet (rude beyond belief but with a core of gold), a gay couple, a retired psychologist running a bookstore, and a slew of minor originals, including a young man nicknamed “Old” and his wife, nicknamed “the Wife.”

Not all the stories take place in Three Pines (there is only so much murder a small village can tolerate — or produce) and although at first I missed the small town atmosphere and charm (blooming bushes! crackling hearths! bottles of wine and loaves of bread and boards of cheese and long walks along the rustic river), Penny makes sure her characters eat well no matter where they are, and her writing guarantees that atmosphere never takes a back seat.

In her latest, The Beautiful Mystery, Gamache finds himself behind centuries-old stonewalls, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with the delights of rich stews, breads, cheeses, and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate). In Bury Your Dead, he is in Quebec City for Winter Carnival; but except for a few mentions of revelers and Caribou (a fatal drink made from vodka, brandy, sherry and port), the focus is on an old library of the tiny English community, and its connection to the hero of Quebec and French separatists, Samuel Champlain. Penny never skimps on her research of food, history, location, or psychology and the result is books that are absolutely addicting.

But not only are we drawn into Penny’s novels by the places and the food and the murder itself (always a bit strange and fascinating) but because Penny writes books about people whom we come to know as friends — compelling friends, who deserve our interest and ignite our caring.

With that caring comes pain. Not all of Penny’s characters come through the darkness imposed by murder and make it through to the light on the other side. Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish, but instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished. Penny shows us that lives can be overtaken by the tolls of abuse, deceit, greed, and revenge — and lives lost.

I finish reading the novels of Louise Penny with feelings of great satisfaction, renewed awe, and just a bit of anxiety: She leaves a question (or two, or three) unanswered but persistent, and we poor readers must wait! We must wait for the next novel to find out how and where, when and if, justice will be delivered, love affirmed, and happiness awarded to those that have waited too long for it. Waiting, waiting — must I really wait a whole year to find out what happens next to Gamache, his sidekick Beauvoir, and the friends that surround them, the enemies that invade them?

Yes, I must wait. But in the meantime, I can reread the seven novels that came before. Because there are new clues to be found, I am sure; there are people to meet again, and see in a new light; and there are places to return to (food and hearth, wine and conversation!). And always, always there is murder. Awful murders, wonderful novels.

P.S. and warning: Penny does such a great job describing so many delicious meals and snacks and drinks, you will not be able to resist eating and drinking while reading her novels. I think I gained five pounds in blue cheese and red wine alone….

This post also appears on The Huffington Post.