The fifth in the Inspector Gamache series is my favourite so far. Penny’s Three Pines stories have all been heavy on atmosphere and character analysis, sometimes at the expense of the actual murder mystery, it seemed. This book still had plenty of atmospherics and character, but the mystery itself was what impressed me most.
I really enjoyed the previous book in the series, The Murder Stone (aka, A Rule Against Murder), in part because it was set away from Three Pines, the tiny Quebec village that was the setting for the previous three. Even though it featured the same characters, giving it a new setting seemed to infuse life into the series. So when this story returned to Three Pines, I had concerns about how the story would go. Happily Penny completely upended my expectations. Partly she did that by once again physically relocating the investigation for a significant part of the story. The part of the story set on Haida Gwaii was fascinating to me. There is a parallelism between Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand in their histories with indigenous peoples, both in the sins (of omission and commission) of the past, and in more recent attempts to make amends. Penny gave a wonderfully concise, non-touristy summary of much the history of Haida Gwaii in a way that was relevant to the story,imparting education along with the entertainment.
The real surprise for me, though, was in the murder mystery. As I read, I kept thinking, “oh that means that character must be guilty, because we know that in a series like this you’d never do that”, and so I was very, very impressed when Penny did do that. I literally said “wow!” out loud, and my grumpy pessimism at having cracked the story in the first few chapters was replaced by delight at having been led completely up the garden path. Not by Penny, unless it was in that she knew the sort of clichéd expectations which could lead to a wrong conclusion and took her time disabusing the reader of them. The eventual resolution makes sense and is internally consistent. So much so that if this was the first book in the series that someone read, they may well figure out whodunnit very, very quickly.
I can’t go into details without completely spoiling the story, and I don’t want to do that because I hope that maybe someone will start on the series after reading my reviews. I thought that Penny got the balance between atmosphere, character analysis and mystery plotting just right in this story, but the impact of what she did would be lessened if it was the first in the series to be read. One review mentioned some dissatisfaction at clues left under-explained, but the driving force behind the entire series is that the real clues to murder lie within the murderer, and I think that Penny made them clear enough here. This book is a great advertisement for mystery series, building characters and reader relationships with them. I’m excited for the next one in the series and recommend mystery and crime fans to give the series a go. Just be sure to start from the beginning, please!