Wednesday, January 3, 2018

January Book Review Club--GLASS HOUSES

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@Barrie Summy

Happy New Year! Big storm coming here in the East, and more grueling temperatures. (On the other hand, my friend Lilly in Australia is sitting in 122 degrees F. Count your blessings.)

Either way, time to hunker down with a good book. Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews!

By Louise Penny
St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur, 2017

A bitterly cold week between Christmas and New Year’s. A political fray you’re loathe to re-enter. A writing deadline, but you can’t write ALL day, can you?

This is the perfect situation for a visit to Three Pines, the mythical Québec village Louise Penny created twelve years and twelve books ago. Penny’s a master at creating characters, and Three Pines is one of them. Armand Gamache, now the chief superintendent of the Sûréte du Québec, is another. Nothing heals the soul like spending time with them.

In GLASS HOUSES, which came out just too late for my August birthday but in plenty of time for Christmas, Penny is at her best. I’m going to re-read this book as a primer in building suspense. The writers among us will be not even slightly surprised to know that Penny wrote it during and after her ailing husband’s final illness. She was in touch with every nerve ending in the universe, and it shows.

Three Pines is a little like Cabot Cove in the late, appalling television series “Murder, She Wrote.” (Except for the horrendous Maine accents and the ocean on the wrong side, but I digress.) The crime rate per capita is about two-to-one. If a villager isn’t buying the farm, some beleaguered somebody from away manages to stumble there before croaking. Somehow this never seems odd.

This is the thirteenth time Supt. Gamache, an accomplished, urbane, seemingly gentle man who in recent books keeps trying to retire, has followed the murders to Three Pines. At this point, he and his estimable wife, Reine-Marie, have actually moved there, looking for peace and quiet they never seem to get. They are part of the village’s fabric, along with a famous artist, a bookstore owner, a baker, a male couple who run a bistro and B&B, and a wizened, evil-tongued poet (also famous, to those with taste) who has a duck under her arm and the vocabulary of a drunken sailor. Everybody cooks well—Penny loves describing food that makes you watch the clock for dinner—and they know how to make one another comfortable even when they’re at each others’ throats.

The books are anything but comfy. Penny does not hesitate to kill or maim people you’ve come to like—you can’t trust her not to break your heart, which of course makes the suspense unbearable. She’s equally unprincipled with her characters’ psyches—there isn’t a person in Three Pines, in Gamache’s family, or among his close colleagues who isn’t deeply scarred by personal disaster.  

GLASS HOUSES makes profligate use of those scars. It’s impossible to say much about the plot without spoiling the fun: The book starts with Gamache as witness for the prosecution in a murder trial with a mysteriously unidentified defendant and a prosecutor working hard to discredit his own star witness.  Over time, we learn that Gamache is risking his family, his village, his reputation, and possibly his freedom for a higher end. He’s morally wrong in just about every way—upsetting, because until now he’s been your moral compass. There are physical dangers, psychic horrors, a ticking clock, and a black-cloaked figure standing still and silent on the Three Pines green, apparently there for vengeance. I tell you, this tale’s got it all.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? I promise you it isn’t. And if you want a master course in character, setting, and suspense, this is your book.

(Dear FCC: I got GLASS HOUSES for Christmas. I’d suggest you read it, but Three Pines is close to the Vermont border and I think you might be insulted by the sly references to U.S. politics. These include a warning about the vigilance required to prevent a government from turning fascist. There’s nothing about this book that isn’t chilling.)