52 weeks – 16 June, 2013


Louise Penny booksThe Beautiful Mystery, A Fatal Grace, A Trick of the Light, Bury Your Dead, and Still Life by Louise Penny. Yes, I am reading them in the wrong order. This adds a certain something to the experience of reading Penny’s Armand Gamache books.

For those who don’t know, Louise Penny has written nine novels in the series, beginning with Still Life, published in 2005. The full list is:

Still Life (2005)
A Fatal Grace (2007; also published under the title Dead Cold)
The Cruelest Month (2008)
A Rule Against Murder (2009; also published as The Murder Stone)
The Brutal Telling (2009)
Bury Your Dead (2010)
A Trick of the Light (2011)
The Beautiful Mystery (2012)
How the Light Gets In (2013)

They feature Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide division at the Sûreté du Québec (and in case you forget his name or his full title they are frequently repeated throughout the novels like a mantra). There is a lot of repetition in the stories, which ties them all together. Previous experiences haunt later novels. And the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem shows up several times, even in the title of one book:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

While they are definitely mystery novels, they don’t have the increasingly ugly violence that has come to define mysteries in recent years. There is a murder but no undue emphasis on gory details. Instead, the story is about Gamache’s investigation. He focuses on what people say and how they say it in the aftermath of the crime. He uncovers the relationships between people—he watches how they interact and files away all those little things that will help him solve the case.

Many of the novels are set in the Quebec village of Three Pines. This is a picture-perfect village, with the resident characters—mostly charmingly idiosyncratic people—walking their dogs, talking, quarreling, socializing, and of course eating. Food is a constant theme throughout the Three Pines books. Gamache does not go long without stopping for a café au lait and a croissant. Or a freshly baked crusty baguette. Or a microbrewery beer. Sensual pleasures are all around.

Jean-Guy glanced around. The bistro was quiet. Placing his hands on the arms of his chair he hauled himself forward. The chair felt warm from the fire. In the grate the large logs popped, sending embers bouncing against the screen to glow on the stone hearth than slowly die away.

The maple logs smelled sweet, the coffee was strong and rich, the aromas from the kitchen familiar.

The first Penny book I read was The Beautiful Mystery, set in a Quebec monastery. Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command, are investigating a death in the monastery, although their previous experiences continue to haunt them there and an unwelcome visitor from outside further complicates matters. Nevertheless, Gamache maintains his courtly demeanour and demonstrates integrity in the face of all challenges. Beauvoir is a more volatile character, who rushes in where Gamache would hold back—both verbally and in person.

So then I went back and started jumping into the other books. This piecemeal approach means I am putting together the overall history in a patchwork way, but it doesn’t seem to affect my enjoyment.

If there are faults in the books, they are forgivable ones. Often, Gamache is just too wise and saintly and Reine-Marie, his wife, is too much the perfect mate. There is no bad food. You could say the books have become formulaic. But it is a formula that I enjoy nestling up with.

When I curl up with the next book, in my imagination it will be snowing softly outside—the kind of big fluffy snowflakes that fall in a Quebec winter, making the world a frosty, magical place. Inside, there will be wine and good food, a fireplace, and friends chatting and wisecracking. And of course there will be a frisson of danger, since there may be a murderer lurking out there.


Rani Arbo & daisy mayhemRani Arbo & daisy mayhem playing at St. James Hall in Vancouver. These are great musicians but it’s hard to describe their music: basically roots but with lots of other influences mixed in. They combine all kinds of folk traditions.The band describes their style as agnostic gospel.

Rani Arbo sings and plays guitar and fiddle. The other members of the band play a variety of instruments, including a highly effective percussion set created from objects such as a suitcase and tin cans.

Listen to Hear Jerusalem Moan:


Produce stallIt’s hard to resist taking photos of produce stalls. This one is on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.