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Book Review: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

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"All of them? Even the children?" The fireplace sputtered and cackled and swallowed his gasp. "Slaughtered?"

Any time a book starts with that paragraph, you know it's going to be a fascinating, suspenseful ride. And The Brutal Telling is that, and more. It's an exploration of the human condition.

The Brutal Telling is the latest of Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache novels. Penny brings the reader back to Three Pines, a quiet, isolated village in the woods. Inspector Gamache has been called back to solve another murder, but it's going to take a lot of detective work and intuition to peel back the layers of lies covering the truth behind the shocking murder of an unknown hermit.

We know some of the lies from the beginning; Olivier, who finds the hermit's body lying on the floor of his own bistro, says he doesn't know the man, even though we know that he does. In a normal murder mystery, that would be enough for me to say without a doubt that he did it. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Penny doesn't make things so easy on the reader. With the introduction of every new character, we see someone who may have been able to do it. Penny has woven subtext, red herring, and truth together into a plot as rich as any tapestry hanging on the wall, and even at the end of the book, I wondered if the police really arrested the right person; in spite of all the physical evidence, I really thought there was something missing, some way that the police could have been wrong.

The Brutal Telling isn't a typical murder mystery. All the traditional elements are there, of course, but there are elements that are present that seem to have nothing to do with the actual murder investigation, except peripherally. There is a sub-plot involving a talented artist and her husband, and her desire to have her works shown in a major gallery. It seemed to me at the time that the only reason this plot was there was to introduce an art expert or two to the book, which plays a somewhat important role in the investigation.

But it was more than that, and I didn't realize it until the end. Penny presents us with a picture of humanity, and what we are capable of. But more importantly, we see what we fear the most. The fear of consequences — the fear that what we do has ramifications that we will have to face, if not immediately, then certainly in the future. And consequences have a way of catching up with us.

The characterization in the book is rich; it feels like Penny has written full biographies of each character in the book, along with details of how they interact with other characters. I really felt that these were real people, could picture them in my mind as they interacted and worked, trying to solve this mystery that confronted them. These are people I cared about almost immediately, just because of the way they were written. There was clearly backstory that I didn't know about from previous books, but nothing that wasn't explained was important to the plot or my enjoyment of the book.

The Brutal Telling is highly recommended. It's not a "beach book," and it's not light reading. But it's an outstanding mystery, and I look forward to reading more about Chief Inspector Gamache and the people of Three Pines. The last time I was this impressed with a mystery was when I first read Jaqueline Winspear's Maisy Dobbs books. Of course, now I need to make some time to head to the library to read the rest of the series, before the next one is published.

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About Warren Kelly

  • Mary Quinn

    I am confused: on page 180 the number above the fron door of the cabin in the woods is 16, on page 305 it again “SIXTEEN”. Then on page 306 it becomes “seventeen”. And much later on page 357 both seventeen and 16 are used…???

  • http://pewreviews.wordpress.com Warren

    I just checked my copy, and all it has is 17. The number above the lintel on p. 180 is 17, and on 305, 306 and 357 all I have is seventeen.