In the fictional Quebec village of Three Pines a body is found in the local bistro. This would be odd enough except that no one admits to knowing who the man is in this tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else, and the idyllic village has produced enough murdered people to soon rival Cabot Cove or the villages of Midsomer. Penny even makes reference to this within the book with the line “Every Quebec village has a vocation…Some make cheese, some wine, some pots. We produce bodies.” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the Montreal Sureté’s cleverest policeman, heads off to Three Pines with his team to once again unravel the mystery behind the murder.
One of the village’s residents does know who the body belongs to (though he is loathe to admit it). He has spent time with the dead man in his cabin in the woods where a ghastly fairytale of chaos, the furies, disease, famine and despair slowly unfolds over weeks of visits. To me The Brutal Telling was a bit like that fairy tale, slowly revealing its deeply buried and dark secrets over a series of encounters that are all just a little bit unreal but are nevertheless compelling.
The ‘unreality’ stems partly from the setting, a strange little village which almost everyone who lives there seems to have stumbled across accidentally in their attempts to escape ‘the city’ and partly from the characters who are universally quirky. There’s a gruff old poet with a pet duck who wears discarded baby clothes, two of the country’s best painters married to each other and grappling with almost insurmountable doubts about their respective talents, the most recent incomers who are a family intent on transforming an old house where something evil has previously happened. Individually they are all quite engaging but collectively anyway are not quite believable as a community.
The problem with creating characters who are of such superior intellect that they really don’t need anyone to help them is that they’re kind of boring unless you give them some compensatory flaws like Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Accordingly Inspector Armand Gamache is just a little bit too nice and normal with his loving wife and wonderful children (and let’s not forget that oft-mentioned brilliance enabling him to solve every case he encounters) to have really grabbed my attention. I like his team much more, my favourite is probably Jean Guy Beauvoir who has a fairly bitter, sardonic view of the world:
But odd as his family might be, they were nothing compared to this. In fact, that was one of the great comforts of his job. At least his family compared well to people who actually killed each other, rather than just thought about it.
The story itself is cleverly constructed, offering lots of possible suspects and red-herrings galore, though never losing sight of the ultimate prize as might easily have been done. In the end the solution was as I had thought it would be at the beginning, but that’s not to take away from what was a quite beautifully drawn web during which I frequently thought I must have it wrong. Among the things I liked most about the writing was the way Penny allowed everything from modern policing techniques to indigenous beliefs to play their respective roles in the telling of her tale of human frailty.
The only book of this series that I have read is the second one, Dead Cold, which I liked except for the fact it really demanded you had read the first novel in the series which annoyed me immensely. I thought Penny did a much better job here of ensuring the book could be read by both fans of the series and people who hadn’t read previous books. I’m still clearly missing something about Louise Penny’s much lauded and award-winning work though as I didn’t seem to adore this as most of her readers have done. That said though I enjoyed the story a lot and have no hesitation recommending the book, especially if you like your mysteries on the lighter side and your settings to draw you in to their surreal embrace.
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The Brutal Telling has been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise (by Kerrie, who liked it so much she chose it for our face to face bookclub’s monthly selection)
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My rating 3.5/5
Author website http://www.louisepenny.com/
Publisher Headline 
Length 460 pages
Book Series #5 in the Armand Gamache/Three Pines series
Source I borrowed it from the library