- - Thursday, September 3, 2015


By Louise Penny

Minotaur, $27.99, 384 pages

In the deep woods beyond the idyllic village in the valley lurks a biblical monster writhing on the back of a massive gun. And in the village there is a man who understands the horror behind what he is looking at, as well as the child’s body lying among the foliage.

Louise Penny is back at full strength and the village of Three Pines is born again for those who would love to live there. What carries the author beyond her inclination toward the maudlin and the melodramatic is her genuine talent for creating an eccentric scenario. Three Pines in her skillful hands becomes a literary pageant and the secret of its charm is its simplicity. Those who live in Three Pines are often those who find it accidentally and then find it impossible to leave. Its quota of mysteries and murders makes it irresistible and those who live there become part of an enchanted little world: the irascible but brilliant poet Ruth and her pet duck Rosa; the two men who run the kind of bed and breakfast that serves the kind of food people search for; and leading the pack is Armand Gamache, the former chief of the Surete in Quebec seeking comfort and peace after a career focused on death.

It is typical Penny that Gamache’s formidable German Shepherd dog, Henri, is currently devoted to Rosa the duck, which his owner observes drily is an improvement on his previous passion for the chair or the sofa. A major question in the plot is whether Gamache will agree to go back to work running the Surete despite the psychological pain that he associates with it.

There is always drama beyond the quixotic in Ms. Penny’s mysteries. In this case it begins as a local argument over an amateur play being staged in the village, with the intriguing name “She sat down and wept.” Gamache is one of the few who is chilled when he recognizes the play as the work of John Fleming, a monster whose hideous killings led to his life imprisonment in the grimmest prison in the country. Gamache urges that the play never be produced, and while that argument is raging, the corpse of 9-year-old Laurent is found in the woods.

In an odd way, the child is the key to the whole plot, and the tragedy of his young life is that nobody in the village, even Gamache, realizes that his bizarre behavior and his fantastic stories are based on frightening facts. Laurent is considered an eccentric child even by the flexible standards of Three Pines, as he constantly warns that the village is in danger and spends his days in the woods, digging for what turns out to be the unspeakable. The fact that his father turns out to be a deserter who fled to Canada to escape his involvement in a massacre the Vietnam War is a damaging factor in the credibility of the family as suspicion falls on the father in the boy’s death.

Again it is Gamache who realizes what it all means after a metal monster resembling the biblical whore of Babylon is found curled around a huge artillery gun that has been buried for years in the dense undergrowth and that was meant to become a global weapon of destruction in Canada and the United States. What makes that more fascinating is that Ms. Penny notes that such a “super gun” did exist at one time and her account of its origin and invention is based on fictionalized fact. But the super gun discovery means that Gamache is no longer retired and terror has come to the lovely village.

Members of the Canadian intelligence service arrive as well as a mysterious professor who knows more about the gun than he admits, and suddenly the sinister shadow of John Fleming darkens the happy little village.

The strange play written by Fleming assumes major importance when it is discovered that not only the firing mechanism but the plans for the gun are missing, and only Fleming knows where they are. Gamache is willing to cut a strange deal with the killer in return for that knowledge and the murders in Three Pines take on massive importance. As usual, Gamache is the controlling figure of the book, leading readers to suspect that he is indeed far from retired and that they can hope to return to Three Pines.

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

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