The third book in the Inspector Gamache series was described by one reviewer as “the series standout so far”. This is not a view I share, at least, not without significant caveats.
The story has two main threads: The murder mystery, which again see Inspector Gamache and his team back in the sleepy and apparently psychopathic village of Three Pines, and the ongoing story arc involving a campaign of retribution aimed at Gamache for exposing a corrupt cop. I enjoyed that part of the story more than the murder mystery for a couple of reasons.
One of the problems I had with the actual murder mystery bit of the story is related to the size of the village. In my review of the first book in the series, I mentioned that it reminded me of the TV series Midsomer Murders. The cluster of villages in that series has racked up over 250 murders in its fifteen year history, making me wonder why anybody would want to live there. If anything, Three Pines is an even more homicidal hell hole. Three books in, the village has already had more than its fair share of murders. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but when the author repeatedly lingers over descriptions emphasising the tiny size of the hamlet, I find my credulity stretched, especially since the next five books in the series also take place there, apparently. Surely by book eight, Inspector Gamache would only have to turn up and arrest the last person left alive in the village?
My other complaint with the story was its self-involved sense of cleverness. A lot of story centred around Wicca, with the actual murder occurring at a séance. I’ve never associated Wicca and séances before, but Penny also weaves in a lot of deep internal musings and strained parallels between Wicca and psychology. The result, for me, read like a mishmash of the worst sort of flaky New Age hipster/hippie philosophy and overly convoluted psychobabble. I’m very much a “cigar is just a cigar” kind of guy when it comes to leisure reading, but every character in this book was full of angsty inner wranglings expressed in ways that came across sounding like self-conscious attempts to be profound. Being something of an expert in writing pretentious drivel that thinks highly of its own cleverness, my reaction to it in this book was “get on with it already.”
It was interesting that one of the characters was reading a Ngaio Marsh mystery in this book. I love Marsh’s stories because they introduced me to Shakespeare in a way that school never did, and because Agatha Troy was a character ahead of her time. But Marsh’s novels also have characters engaged in a lot of the same sort of overly complex internal psychological arguments. Some of the Troy/Alleyn dialogues are especially excruciating in their pretension. Marsh at least had the good sense to laugh at the overly intellectual nature of some of those passages from time to time, but Penny’s imitation of that style comes across as deadly earnest. It’s possible that one of the recurring central characters may be at least partly inspired by Marsh’s Troy, but I find her much less likeable.
The reason I stuck with the book, despite my reaction to what I thought of as bloviating, was the other part of the story. The ongoing arc involving Gamache and the fallout from his bringing down a homicidal senior officer was interesting and involving. It demonstrated that Penny can craft engaging mysteries when not getting bogged down in overly analysing the psychology of her characters. Bringing it to something of a climax (though not an end) was explicitly stated as a theme of the story, and she did it very well, delivering on the promise just when I was beginning to get angry at her for having run out of time to wrap it up.
It’s obvious that plenty of people did not react as I did to the murder mystery part of this story, and if you like characters whose inner motivations are examined in depth, you would probably really enjoy this one. I am going to continue with the series, for now, partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness, but mostly out of a keen interest to see whether Gamache’s own story arc is resolved before everyone in Three Pines is either dead or in prison.