The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

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6449551Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #5

Kindle Edition, 460 pages

Published: Minotaur Books, 2009 (1st published September 22, 2009)

Setting: Québec

Awards: Macavity Award Nominee for Best Mystery Novel (2010), Anthony Award for Best Novel (2010), Dilys Award Nominee (2010), Agatha Award for Best Novel (2009)

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As this story opens, Olivier — owner of the local bistro in Three Pines, Quebec — sits in a secluded forest cabin with “The Hermit.”  A tale is being spun by the fireside: a story of terror, chaos, and death. The next day, the body of a stranger is found in Olivier’s bistro. Chief Inspector Gamache and his team find themselves back in Three Pines, surrounded by familiar faces, unraveling a web of secrets and deceit.

This time Olivier, the beloved local bistro owner and antique dealer, and his lover Gabri are tangled in the investigation. And Olivier is at risk of having difficult secrets revealed.

A trail of particularly interesting clues, including European treasures lost during World War II and first editions of classic books, lead Gamache into the wilderness and across the continent to Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands).

Penny writes beautifully, with both a keen eye for human weaknesses and compassion for her characters. She also seems to be quite a Renaissance woman, knowledgeable and passionate about art, literature, history, and other topics. Not to mention food. I can’t remember when a literary series has consistently made me so hungry.

She masterfully weaves these subjects into her mysteries, and this is particularly evident in A Brutal Telling. As we follow the trail of clues, we are immersed in snippets of art, history, poetry — including Margaret Atwood’s work — and Canadian culture. This novel was also my introduction to Haida Gwaii, a part of Canada I’d never heard of, and the life and work of artist Emily Carr. According to A Brutal Telling, Carr used her art to preserve an indigenous culture before it was destroyed by a “tidal wave of disease, alcohol, and missionaries.” Fascinating and heartbreaking.

I was also very intrigued by the novel’s exploration of cryptology. Seriously, Louise Penny is a lady I would love to have a cup of coffee with — I’d thoroughly enjoy just listening to her talk.

This is an exceptionally engaging and well-crafted mystery, perhaps the best in the series so far. Readers of literary mysteries and cozies are likely to enjoy this novel.

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Note — WARNING — MAJOR SPOILER

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Penny took a huge risk letting Olivier be the killer, because he was the first — and most obvious — suspect. Olivier and Gabri had been established, in the first four installments in this series, as central characters in Three Pines, and they were easy to like. I had come to love Gabri and be fond of Olivier. It was difficult to see Olivier convicted and even harder to see how it affected his partner.

I think Gamache had difficulty getting at the truth of the case because he had become genuinely fond of Olivier, and because he knew how the conviction of one of Three Pines’ best loved citizens would affect the village Gamache had come to see as a second home. Even after Olivier’s worst secret was revealed, he continued to think of him as a friend. It was a bit difficult for readers to guess the “whodunnit” for the same reason — she had already given us time to know and care about these characters. We had to go down that difficult road with the protagonist.

Well played, Madame Penny. Well played.

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