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