Reviews by L. J. Roberts

LOUISE PENNY – Glass Houses. Inspector Armand Gamache #13. Minotaur Books, hardcover, August 2017.

First Sentence: “State your name, please.”

   It is a very hot July day in Montreal and Chief Inspector Gamache is testifying in a murder trial. The previous Halloween, a figure in a black robe and mask had stood for several days on the green. It didn’t speak, rarely moved, and finally disappeared. In this book the decisions and actions of Inspector Gamache will impact far more than the people in the courtroom.

   The story opens in a courtroom. What is interesting is that we have no idea as to who is on trial or for what crime they are being tried. Yes, there is a murder, but not until we are a fair way into the story. What we do know is that more is happening than what seems to be— “Maureen Corriveau was new to the bench. … She could have absolutely no idea that she’d drawn the short straw. That a whole lot of unpleasantness was about to come her way.” –The courtroom scenes are very well done and have a tension of their own.

   The more we learn of Gamache, one realizes he is the person one should aspire to be. He is one willing to take great risks that may result in him paying a high price, but necessary to achieve a goal— “’Never lose sight of the goal,’ he said, returning his gaze to his subordinates ‘Never.’” The relationship with his second-in-command and son-in-law, Jean-Guy, is strong and enviable, hasn’t always been smooth, and neither is it here. What it is, is real; human.

   With the story moving back to Three Pines, we meet/are reacquainted with so many wonderful characters. Penny’s characters become real; individuals we would like to know, with whom we’d like to spend time. With each book, we learn a bit more about them and their perspective on life. We come to realize how multi-layered they are. Ruth, for example, for all her eccentricity, is a crone; a sage in the best sense. We are also made aware of the robed figure which projects a decided menace with the imagery of a bell jar being particularly effective— “’I thought it was Death,’ said Armand Gamache.”

   Managing two time periods can be challenging, and often irritating for the reader. Penny manages if flawlessly. Her writing is so visual, it is as though they are film cutaway shots, leaving the reader with no question as to where they are when.

   If one is going to have realistic characters, one must also have excellent, natural-sounding dialogue. Penny often catches one completely off guard with her humor making us laugh such as with the running joke about Jean-Guy’s glasses, or the unexpected comparison— “Jean-Guy and Ruth were much alike, actually, though he’d never, ever tell his son-in-law that he resembled a drunken old woman.” –One of the best instances is also with Jean-Guy regretting not learning meditation. But one should discover his mantra for one’s self.

   The plot is compelling and very current, the story keeps one so involved that losing sleep in order to finish the book is quite likely, and the originality in the story’s structure only adds to the overall quality. There are twists, and important questions which are raised.

   Penny’s books are psychological studies, lessons in philosophy, and labyrinths of courage and the human spirit. They are also civics lessons in the causes of bigotry and the human cost of the drug trade. Penny reminds us of lessons we should have learned but that we are inclined to apply to others rather than ourselves. Her understanding of humankind, its strengths and weaknesses, only adds to the remarkable nature of her writing— “And a conscience is something one cannot escape.”

   Glass Houses is so good there are times one literally finds one has stopped breathing and must consciously catch one’s breath. Even so, Penny never loses sight of the fact that the book is also an excellent, and ultimately highly suspenseful, expertly crafted mystery with twist upon twist upon twist. With this book, Ms. Penny has taken another step forward as one of today’s most remarkable writers. Just when you think she can’t get any better, she does. Just when you think her new book can’t be better than the last, it is. If you’ve not read her before, you really should.

Rating: Excellent.

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