The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny

The Brutal TellingIn Louise Penny’s fifth Chief Inspector Gamache book, The Brutal Telling, the village of Three Pines is once again witness to murder. And perhaps “witness” is too light a word, because the body of the victim is found on the floor of the bistro owned by Olivier and Gabri, the bistro that is very much the heart and soul of the Three Pines community.

I’ve always thought that Louise Penny set a new standard for the traditional mystery when she came out with the first novel in the Armand Gamache series, Still Life, and as with the previous books in the series, The Brutal Telling explores the broader themes arising from the murder that lies at the heart of the mystery.

And there is more to the mystery in this book than the identity of the killer and the victim. This is a story about lies, myths and secrets, about greed and human nature, about what we treasure and what we learn to treasure. How do we know what is real, how do we discern the the truth?

“Who’s Vincent Gilbert, sir? You seemed to know him.”

“He’s a saint.”

Beauvoir laughed, but seeing Gamache’s serious face he stopped. “What do you mean?”

“There’re some people who believe that.”

“Seemed like an asshole to me.”

“The hardest part of the process. Telling them apart.”

I have grown to love and know all the recurring characters so well: Gamache, kind, just, with a quiet but powerful inner strength; Beauvoir and Lacoste, his investigative team, diligent and filled with the utmost respect and love for their superior officer; Clara, Peter, Myrna, Olivier, Gabri, all former outsiders who had stumbled onto the secret that was the village of Three Pines and made it their home; the mad, Governor-General award-winning poet, Ruth; and Three Pines itself, which is more of a character in my mind than simply a place.

And so I found The Brutal Telling to be a more intense read than any of the previous books, because in The Brutul Telling, we must watch as Three Pines is torn apart.

In addition to the mystery, I enjoyed the continuation of a number of smaller storylines, too: the progress of Clara’s artwork and Peter’s jealousy, Rosa, the duck who as a hatchling had impressed herself on Ruth, the transformation of the bleak, old and evil Hadley house.

I was not completely satisfied with the ending; the motivation didn’t feel as concrete to me as I would have liked. I don’t know, however, how much of this was due to my past relationship with the series; a reader who has read the series from the start is likely, I think, to find herself standing rather uncomfortably in Gamache’s shoes in the end.

For me, this wasn’t a book to race through; it was one I savored, taking the time to get re-acquainted with old friends once again. I closed The Brutal Telling with sadness, but I took away with me an end note of hope, too.

An aside: I also enjoyed a small side plot that found a bewildered Inspector Beauvoir showered with snippets of poetry by resident poet Ruth Zardo. Beauvoir has a bit of a macho flair to him, greatly dislikes poetry and is repulsed by Ruth; it was fun to watch him piece together the lines, and see Ruth’s poetic perception revealed as the poem emerges: “and lick you clean of fever,/and pick your soul up gently by the nape of the neck/and caress you into darkness and paradise.”

I’m not very good at things like this, so I might be very wrong, but I think this is a reference to something that happened to Beauvoir in the previous book, A Rule Against Murder (I just can’t see “Maddening, passionate, full of life” referring to Beauvoir’s wife Enid). If so, it was a soft, sweet thing to remember. If you’ve read both A Rule Against Murder and The Brutal Telling, what do you think? Am I on the right track?

(Note: Ruth’s poetry is actually that of Margaret Atwood, Ralph Hodgson and Mike Freeman, used with permission of the authors; the lines in this instance are from Atwood’s “Sekhmet, the Lion-headed Goddess of War”).

Another note: While I’ve given my review of this book from the standpoint of someone who’s very familiar with the series, The Brutal Telling definitely does also work as a standalone. It doesn’t contain spoilers about the previous books and you won’t need to have read the previous four books in order to understand the mystery in this book.

Another update: I might have been wrong in my assessment that this book works as a standalone, as I’ve read some reviews now where people unfamiliar with the series and the characters were somewhat disappointed with The Brutal Telling. The good thing is that it doesn’t give any spoilers, so you’ll have no trouble going back to the earlier books in the series. But if you do get the chance, it’s a very good idea to read them in order, beginning with Still Life.

Where to buy The Brutal Telling:

U.S. (Amazon.com) | Indiebound | Canada (Chapters) | UK (Amazon.co.uk)

Review copy details: published by Minotaur Books, 2009, ARC provided by publisher, 372 pages

27 thoughts on “The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny

    1. Belle

      If you’re new to the series, Margot, I’d really recommend starting with the first book, Still Life, and going from there. Looking back on my experience reading this, I think it had so much of an impact on me because of my familiarity with the characters. I think the book works as a stand-a-lone mystery just fine, but I can’t help but think that the cumulative effect of coming to know and really love the characters had an impact on how I read this book.

      Reply
    1. Belle

      That was something I wondered about in the back of my mind, Jill – how someone who’s reading The Brutal Telling as her first introduction to the series would feel about the book.

      The Armand Gamache that Penny has drawn for me over the course of the first books is very fully fleshed (especially for a mystery) – there are things I understand about him, like his very strong moral core, that I think you can’t really know just from reading this book, without reading the other books. There’s a lot to Ruth, too, revealed over the earlier books. It’s a very similar thing with ALL the rest of the Three Pines inhabitants – I really came to love them – so you’ll probably understand, since you’ve read the book, why I felt like I was in Gamache’s (personal) shoes in the end.

      Reply
  1. Bernadette in Australia

    I agree with you that Penny writes well. Unfortunately I didn’t start the series with the first book. I read the second in the series which had loads of spoilers for the first book and some things that didn’t make sense because I hadn’t read the first one. It kind of annoys me when a writer forces this kind of thing but I will revisit Three Pines I think.
    .-= Bernadette in Australia´s last blog ..Crime Fiction Alphabet: A is for Absolution =-.

    Reply
    1. Belle

      Penny’s books are well worth a revisit, Bernadette. There aren’t any spoilers that I can think of in The Brutal Telling. And it definitely can be read as a standalone.

      Reply
  2. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)

    I’ve just agreed to review this book and didn’t realise that it was the 5th in the series. I’ve just seen your advice about reading them in order, but I don’t want to have to read all 4 books first. Do you think it will spoil reading the first four, or just confuse me a bit because I don’t know what has happened previously?

    Reply
    1. Belle

      Jackie, I’m pretty sure it won’t spoil the first four for you – there aren’t any spoilers. It might not be as intense a read for you because you’re just coming to know the characters so you won’t yet have the additional investment in them that you might if you’d read the previous books, but the book itself definitely works as a standalone mystery. No previous knowledge of the characters is required. It should still be quite an enjoyable read.

      Reply
  3. WordLily

    I’ve been hearing a lot about this book, and I love mysteries (of course I’d start at the beginning if I was going to read them). But here’s my question: Is this book (the series) really brutal? Or was that just good for the title?
    .-= WordLily´s last blog ..Book hooks =-.

    Reply
    1. Belle

      The series is not brutal at all (I have the same reservations about brutality in mysteries and thrillers). The explanation for the title is given in the book, and when you finish the book, you can see the relation between the mystery itself and the title – the title is actually quite a good metaphor for the events leading up to the mystery.

      Penny’s books never have sensational murders, although she is very good at taking a “regular” murder and subtly reminding us that the taking of a life is always a brutal thing. I find when I read her books that it’s like getting the best of both worlds – the cozy feeling of a traditional mystery combined with the deeper psychological probing that sometimes takes place in a grittier, edgier type of story.

      Reply
    1. Belle

      I think you’ll enjoy this one, Kathy. It definitely works as a standalone (I’m a little worried my review seems to say that it doesn’t, which isn’t true at all!). You might find yourself adding the four previous books to your TBR after you finish this one, though :)

      Reply
  4. molly

    I purchased Still Life in the fall after reading a rave review. Of course, I have yet to read it :(. Perhaps I will find the time this year to read the first one, because it looks like I will have 4 more in this series to add to the TBR pile.
    .-= molly´s last blog ..Review: French Milk =-.

    Reply
    1. Belle

      Molly, once you start, I think you will be hooked. My favorites in the series are Still Life, A Rule Against Murder (the 4th book), and now, my third favorite, is this one. The only reason why I didn’t enjoy books 2 and 3 as much is because I found the subplot that was continued through those two books to be a distraction from the mysteries and characters.

      Reply
  5. Dorte H

    As I am very good at forgetting, I don´t mind spoilers or reading out of order too much.

    I like the series, especially for the environment and the villagers, but what annoys me a bit is Gamache himself, because he is so saintly. Poetry and such just belong to this series so I assume it is take it or leave it, and if I don´t get all the hints and connections I don´t mind too much as long as it doesn´t spoil the solution to the crime.
    .-= Dorte H´s last blog ..Liza Cody, Dupe (1980) =-.

    Reply
    1. Belle

      I’m very good at forgetting endings too, Dorte. I hardly ever read a new-to-me series in order – I’m just so eager to get started on them! And I don’t think this series needs to be read in order, and The Brutal Telling definitely can be read as a standalone book.

      I have a different reaction to Gamache, though – kind, loving, with that very strong just and moral core. Kind of an ideal father figure!

      Reply
  6. Pingback: The Brutal Telling – Louise Penny – Farm Lane Books Blog

  7. Beth

    One of the things I’ve enjoyed noting in Louise’s books is how she makes her characters human, good and bad and complex. Even Gamache isn’t perfect. That’s why I could accept the truth of the murderer that so many people had trouble accepting. The person had a past that we didn’t know about, and doesn’t everyone. That is what I love about Penny’s characters, they’re complex.
    The other thing I love is how she foreshadows her next book. The poem from Ruth to Beauvoir refers to the future more than the past. And Annie is the little lion. I think we’ll see something between them next book.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

  9. Sam

    I have read Still Life and now A Brutal Telling–BTW the book title refers to a line from an Emily Carr letter. I think the more that you know about the Three Pines characters, the sadder you feel at the end of A Brutal Telling. I am hoping that there are more resolutions to the murder in this book in the next book Bury Your Dead. A Brutal Telling reads more like a morality play but I still agree with Gabri at the end. Incidently I find Gamache to be a more avuncular Brunetti (Donna Leon’s main character). Like Leon, Penny does not shy away from the political issues in her settings.

    Reply

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