- - Friday, September 26, 2014

By Louise Penny
Minotaur, $27.99, 384 pages

In this series of haunting mysteries built around the enchanting community of Three Pines and focused on the fascinating character of Armand Gamache, a police inspector with panache, the place sometimes transcends the plot.

Louise Penny is a writer who delves into the emotions of her cast of characters, from Gamache to Ruth, an eccentric poet, and Rosa, Ruth’s profane pet duck. This is the 10th book focused on the exploits of Gamache and the tiny Canadian village where he not only solves, but tracks down, murders. The atmosphere of the town is expertly conveyed, from its picture-postcard weather to descriptions of the croissants on the menu at the bed-and-breakfast that has bay windows with views of gardens full of flowers.

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It is an idyllic portrayal, yet darkness lies beneath, and former Inspector Gamache, once chief of Quebec homicide, has seen some of his worst as well as his best days in Three Pines. He is in fact recovering from gunshot wounds received in his last devastating case there, when his peaceful retirement with his wife and his dog Henri is disrupted by a crisis within the village. It is the case of Clara Morrow, a gifted artist whose marriage to Peter Morrow, a different kind of painter, split when they agreed to a year’s separation before reuniting to discuss their future. He has not returned and has not communicated with his wife, who is frantic. She seeks advice and comfort from Gamache as well as her other friends in Three Pines, where life revolves — usually tranquilly — around the general store, the bistro and the cooking.

Recipes are simple at the bistro, but Ms. Penny makes them an important part of her writing. She has a remarkable capacity to conjure up the colors of flowers and the beauty of a village in a snowstorm as well as what people bring to a picnic in a meadow. She has an easy turn with words and sensitivity to how and why her characters react and think. Even Gamache, who is the leader of the Penny pack, is a man whose formidable strength is leavened by warmth and gentleness.

Predictably, Gamache and a former deputy form what amounts to a posse to track down the missing Peter Morrow. He turns out to have wandered far into his past as a painter, traveling to the wilds at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and even to Scotland, where he visits the surreal Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and as he goes, he paints what he has never painted in the days when he was a purely traditional artist.

This is not your traditional murder mystery. Ms. Penny’s plotting is subtle, and only after a while does the sinister slither into her settings with discoveries of unlikely rivalries and revenges. It takes imagination to come up with paintings poisoned with asbestos yet she makes it as credible as it is evil. Gamache’s group follow Peter Morrow’s transcontinental trek to the remote village of Tabaquen, where lie not only the answers to their questions, but an ultimate tragedy.

It would not be fair to disclose too much of the book’s climax, but its conclusion is multifaceted because Gamache’s resettling in Three Pines has not resolved his own inner torment about his past life. He rests daily on a bench he has given to the town, on which someone else has carved “Surprised by Joy” and he reads daily from a little book tucked into his pocket. The book, which he shows to almost no one, draws upon an old spiritual in its discussion of balm in Gilead. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,” it reads. “There’s power enough in Heaven to cure a sin-sick soul.”

Gamache thinks a lot about sin-sick souls. He has known many of them, and he seems haunted by the possibility that he is one of them. Which perhaps is why he embarks on the strange and sad quest to soothe Clara Morrow’s soul by finding her troubled husband, and Three Pines is the place to ponder and to find peace. Most people would like to find a Three Pines.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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