Penny, Louise. The Brutal Telling.

NY: St. Martin, 2009.

Penny is noteworthy for the complexity of her characters, and especially of their motivations. This fifth installment in the award-winning series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sûreté homicide squad raises that to a new peak.

Olivier and Gabriel are a middle-aged gay couple who run the bistro and bed & breakfast in the tiny rural village of Three Pines, and in the previous books they have become the center and balance point of the community, along with artists Peter and Clara, the mad poet Ruth, and ex-psychologist bookstore-owner Myrna. (All the key figures in Three Pines seem to be creatively extraordinary in various ways and they all came there — escaped to refuge there — from somewhere else. It’s sort of an Emerald City in the woods.) And one morning a dead body turns up on the floor of the bistro, which brings Gamache and his team on the run. Nobody knows the deceased, he’s too healthy and clean to be a tramp, and there’s no obvious motive for his murder. But we know that Olivier has been sneaking up to a hidden cabin in the woods at night, where he spends hours in deep conversation with The Hermit, as he calls him. And Olivier is keeping his mouth shut.

The old, abandoned Hadley House up on the hill overlooking the village, which featured as a murder site in two of the previous books, has been bought by a wealthy couple from Montreal who are renovating it as an auberge and spa, which is making Olivier and Gabi feel economically threatened. The rest of the village isn’t happy about the somewhat pushy newcomers, either. But the author also provides a great deal more depth to their story, even as we learn far more than we did about Olivier’s background and personal demons. Penny’s rather mystical approach to the visual arts plays an important part, too.

This series is of the “psychological mystery” variety of police procedural, not the shoot-’em-up type, and I know the literary-philosophical aspects are not to everyone’s taste, but I find them very enjoyable. And while you can read this one independently, I don’t recommend it. There’s far too much back-story for all the major players, for the Hadley House, and for Three Pines itself, without knowledge of which you won’t enjoy the book nearly as much.

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