I should confess, immediately, that I'm not a member of the Three Pines cult. I wasn't one of the hundreds of fans who swarmed the publisher's booth at BEA (BookExpo) back in May in order to get their hands on an advance review copy of A Trick of the Light, the newest Louise Penny mystery featuring Quebec detective Armand Gamache and his team along with the quirky or downright eccentric residents of the fictional Three Pines, the township left off all the provincial maps. Nonetheless, I did request a copy of the ARC from Amazon's Vine program last month, mostly because I found Bury Your Dead, the last episode in Gamache's adventures, to be particularly appealing, perhaps because it was largely set in Quebec City and because it featured a mystery surrounding the province's founder, Samuel de Champlain, and the endless conflict between Anglophone and Francophone residents of Quebec.
The good news about the latest Three Pines mystery -- beyond the fact that fanatics now only have two weeks to wait until publication day -- is that rabid fans will find it contains all their favorite features. It is largely set in Three Pines itself; Ruth Zardo, the obnoxious and cynical poet, is as curmudgeonly as ever; Gabri, the plus-sized bistro owner, is as lovable as ever and back to his ebullient self after the resolution of a plot that stretched over the last two books. (I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers!) The big news is that Clara Morrow is finally about to have her day in the sun: when the novel opens, it's at her first solo art show, and everyone is raving about her portraits. But when the scene shifts from the Montreal museum's formal vernissage to the informal party back home in Three Pines, the joy quickly evaporates. Because early the next morning, as her husband returns from picking up papers that contain reviews of Clara's show, he stumbles over a body in their picture-perfect garden -- a body that turns out to belong to one of the few people in the world that Clara could describe as an enemy, or at least as being hostile to her.
It's actually amazing that anyone dares venture into Three Pines at all, really -- the mortality rate, on a per capita basis, must be off the charts by now. Happily, Louise Penny seems to have a sense of humor about setting so many crimes in a tiny village. Gamache and his chief assistant, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have become so accustomed to the slow pace of life in Three Pines that they have stopped locking their car doors when they arrive to investigate a crime. After all, "people in Three Pines might occasionally take a life, but not a car." As with many of the victims in Louise Penny's mysteries, readers learn about Lillian, the alcoholic art critic who rejoiced not only in puncturing pomposity but in destroying the dreams of aspiring artists only after her death -- she's never really a character except in the eyes of others. The plot itself is a relatively straightforward one: was Lillian's mortal offense one that dates back to the days when she routinely skewered her targets in the press, or did her recent efforts to make amends for her misdeeds trigger an unexpected homicidal urge?