Review: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

The Brutal Telling is a first-rate detective novel. The mystery is complex and well-plotted, while the beautiful Canadian scenery and charming characters breathe life into the story. It is a look into the very darkest corners of the human heart, a reminder that we never truly know what another person is capable of, or what secrets they may keep.

The book starts with a story, told in the dead of night by a crackling fire.

“Chaos is coming, old son, and there’s no stopping it. It’s taken a long time, but it’s finally here.”

It will be a long time before we know the whole story, or what Chaos is coming to this little village.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is head of the Sûreté du Québec. His team is called to the remote village of Three Pines to investigate a brutal murder: a body is found on the floor of the small bistro run by Olivier and Gabri. No one admits to knowing the victim, but it is clear he was murdered elsewhere and purposely dumped in the couple’s place of business. Who is the old man and why would someone target Olivier? Some residents of this picturesque village will become entangled in a web of lies as they try to hide their knowledge and their connection to the victim.

This is the fifth novel in the series, so some of you may already be familiar with the Chief Inspector, his moustache, his graying hair, his kind eyes. He is not the sort of detective to chase criminals through dark alleys; instead, he is a thoughtful man, well-read, cultured, with a keen ability to see through the masks that people wear. He understands that to solve a murder like this you don’t move forward, you move back, back into the past to find the conflict that started it all. But how do you move at all when you cannot even identify the victim?

The novel is filled with wonderful characters. I was especially fond of Ruth and Rosa. Ruth is a curmudgeonly old poet, inclined to a few too many martinis and a lot of foul language. Rosa is a duck, and Ruth takes her everywhere. Old Mundin, and his wife — The Wife, no one knows her real name — and their tiny son, Charles. The Parras – Roar and Hanna and their teenaged son, Havoc. (What a terrific name for a young man.) Agent Morin, the young fellow who works up the courage to ask the famous inspector if he might join in the investigation…and is rewarded for his bravado. There is also Clara, perhaps my favorite character. Clara faces the sort of moral dilemna where we all want to believe we would be brave and stalwart. It would be so easy to turn a deaf ear — but would the guilt eat her alive? And is it worth all she would be risking?

The Gilberts – Marc and Dominique and mother-in-law Carole – gave up their big-city existence to escape the stress and came to Three Pines to open a hotel and spa. They bought the old Hadley house, the site of an earlier tragedy, and turned it into a luxurious vacation spot. But there are plenty of small-town rivalries to deal with; trying to hire away Olivier and Gabri’s staff is not going to make them any friends. They don’t quite grasp the dynamics of running competing businesses in a small town, and by the time someone points out their missteps, it might be too late.

Throughout the novel, I was charmed by Gamache’s thoughtful methods and his understanding of people and the things that move them. His second in command, Beauvoir, is a perfect foil. He’s more earthy, and even though he knows the value of the Inspector’s methods, he is sometimes frustrated and eager to act. Due to the nature of the investigation, the book is full of history and culture — art and poetry and music — and glowing descriptions of the beautiful Canadian wilderness.

As far as he could see there were mountains rising from the water, covered in dark forest. He could see an island and fishing boats. Overhead, eagles soared. the men walked onto the beach which was covered in pebbles and shells and stood silent for a few minutes, listening to the birds and the lapping water and smelling the air with that combination of seaweed and fish and forest.

The Brutal Telling is the fifth novel in the series and it is sure to send you looking for the first four (which I already have on request from my local library). You can read more about Louise Penny’s work at her website, I received my review copy free through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program.

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