Take Refuge in a Book

Retreat from the crush of communication

Take refuge in a book. That’s the best I can offer, and I offer it with confidence that it is, indeed, the best advice you’re going to get today!

I’ve been wounded (perhaps not mortally) by the use of language over the past year to bully and frighten, cudgel and cajole the great unthinking masses. And it continues, as if neither the losers nor the winners can be satisfied with the results. It is hard to bear.

Now for the good news: I have borne it with the help of one of North America’s most fabulous novelists. She’s a Canadian, not an American, which is grimly humorous in a time when so many Americans have been talking idly of defecting to Canada. This amazing author launched her series of intelligent, highly literary, compellingly sensual and intriguing mysteries in 2005. It’s called the Inspector Gamache series, and it includes, counting the masterpiece released in September of this year, 13 novels. Today I’m going to tell you a little about this author and this series. If you’re still casting about for a harmless, temporary escape from the madness that has been America in 2016 (and nothing in a bottle seems to be a good option), here is your antidote.

Louise Penny is 58 years old, recently widowed, a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio host, whose first novel, Still Life, placed second in the “Debut Dagger” competition of 800 entries. With her beloved physician husband at her side, she went on to research and author in only 11 years the next 12 mysteries, each one as astonishingly pleasurable to read as the one before.

Now, many of us hunger for a good mystery story, but mysteries are not all created equal (thank heavens, right?). Not all mysteries provide an escape into a world that is just enough like your own to make it believable and just uniquely gentle enough to make it a retreat.

Looking for a safe, interesting place to go for a few minutes or a few hours each day to shut out the hate and fear and anxiety? Hungry for an intellectual challenge wrapped up in a literary delight? Louise Penny and I are going to show you the way, right now.

Let’s go to Quebec. Ever been there? Neither have I. It matters not – you’ll enjoy this trip. All 13 stories are set in Quebec but, except for #9, more specifically in a little village called Three Pines, a place so obscure that it has actually been dropped from all maps. You’ll get to know the villagers who appear over and over in every story. You’ll come to love some and distrust others, but look forward to seeing them all. And you’ll join Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his dashing but imperfect young second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvior, as they solve the mystery of a new homicide (sometimes more than one) in each book.

As the series progresses, the characters’ lives unfold over time. They get married and divorced, go to jail and come back home, become addicted or infatuated or impaired, find dead bodies or not, and always, always, get together at the local bistro to drink café au lait and eat fresh croissants. In the late afternoon they come together again at that bistro, sipping beer or Scotch in front of the fireplace, and interacting just exactly as that group of perfectly drawn characters might. You’ll meet a crazy old poet laureate, a psychologist retired to operate the community bookstore, a fabulous artist struggling to be discovered, and, of course, several key figures in the Surete’ du Quebec, one of the world’s most prestigious police organizations (and that part is not fiction).

Armand Gamache himself is a complex character whose thought processes and decisions are both consistent and wonderfully surprising. Jean-Guy develops beautifully over the series; your heart will break for him and soar for him. Gamache surrounds himself with a mosaic of most unusual agents and inspectors, all carefully wrought but still capable of growth.

The series is very literary and sensory-rich! Start with Still Life. Then read A Fatal Grace. And so proceed through the series where sandalwood and rosewater and other amazing scents mix with “runny brie,” a pet duck, a dear and hilarious gay couple, a train station where the trains no longer run, and other touches that let you escape the here and now and just adventure in a whole new (very real, very believable) world far from your own. You’ll enjoy choir practice, explore the now defunct one-room schoolhouse, and travel by snowshoe.

Woven into that fabric of serenity and simplicity, however, are riveting murder mysteries. In some cases Gamache and crew investigate the homicide of one villager or visitor, a dead body having been found in the forest or right in the bistro itself! In others, they probe intricate plots designed to take hundreds of lives in a horrific second – and the clock is ticking. The reality of Montreal’s streets and highways, bridges and tunnels, makes those large-scale conspiracies as beguiling as does the quaint “township” landscape of the simple homicides.

Penny does a fabulous job of dangling all the evidence in front of the reader, letting us into the Chief Inspector’s mind as he puts the puzzle together, offering up a most cerebral experience. And then, at the very end, the second shoe drops – and I’m always wrong!

Have I convinced you? Well, then, let me end with a warning: Read the series in order. Resist any temptation to do otherwise. I accidentally read one of the later books, not realizing it was a series. The damage was not irreparable, but it really is breathtaking to read the books in order. So, what is the order? Well, I paid Amazon.com $1.09 to download the sequential list to my Kindle, but I’m going to give it to you free of charge right now:

·      Still Life

·      A Fatal Grace (aka Dead Cold)

·      The Cruellest Month

·      A Rule Against Murder

·      The Brutal Telling

·      Bury your Dead

·      The Hangman

·      A Trick of the Light

·      The Beautiful Mystery (This is the one not set in Three Pines and Montreal, but in a most obscure and fascinating monastery.)

·      How the Light Gets In

·      The Long Way Home

·      The Nature of the Beast

·      The Great Reckoning

I don’t know whether there will be more. Penny’s husband, Michael, was by her side in the crafting of each story, always mentioned in the preface or afterword. She noted in the preface to The Great Reckoning, released in September 2016, that Michael was now completely afflicted with dementia. Sadly, he passed away about the time the book came to market.

But do enjoy the bounty Louise Penny has given us. Escape to Canada after all!