Sunday, September 18, 2011

Louise Penny: A Trick of the Light

This is a photo of my scarecrow named Hope.  She's not so good at keeping the weeds at bay, but she does well with keeping the crows out of the vegetable garden.  I have to do the weeds.

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT by Louise Penny. Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York. September 2011. 339 pp. $25.99; $27.99, Canada. ISBN 978-0-312-65545-7.

In her September newsletter, Louise Penny wrote that this book "is perhaps my most autobiographical," i.e., she went deeper and revealed more of herself than she ever has in her previous six novels. A Trick of the Light, as well as her other novels about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec City Surete and the village of Three Pines, near the Vermont border, is a mystery, and it’s best to read the series in order, beginning with Still Life, because there are strands in each book that go back to earlier books. But of course you can start anywhere.

I found Louise’s The Cruelest Month (the third in the series) in my local Pittsboro (NC) library. I was drawn to the title that echoed T.S. Eliot’s "April is the cruelest month" and to the lovely cover photo of lilacs. I loved it.

Then I met Louise at Malice Domestic Convention in late April 2009. I found her and her husband, Michael, open, friendly, gracious. Later that spring I interviewed her by email for the Sisters in Crime Guppy [great unpublished mystery writers] newsletter, First Draft. See my post of May 29 [click on May on the right side of the page]. I watched her get the Agatha for that novel, and another Agatha for Best Novel this past April for Bury Your Dead. She has won an Agatha four times, more than any other traditional mystery writer, as well as many other awards, like the New Blood Dagger, Arthur Ellis, Barry, Anthony, and Dilys. This September she made it into number four place on the New York Times Best Selling Novels list, and she has just received the Macavity award.

My own form in the mystery genre, and my favorite mysteries to read, are also the traditional mysteries, where the sex and violence are not too explicit, where there are a number of suspects. But I also love, love most, when relationships are explored, when the author digs deep and reveals wisdom about the complexities of the human heart, and this, to me, is Louise’s primary territory. She enters the dark side of our human nature, the anger, hatred, resentment we all feel at times, and in this book, where the causes of such dark feelings are nearly impossible to forgive. If I had to use one word, I’d say this book is about forgiveness, and I mean that word to be at the other end of the spectrum from anything trite or automatic.

This is the kind of forgiveness that is essential for us to master in order to be fully ourselves, fully mature human beings. To hate, brood, resent, however much such feelings are completely understandable, and in one way even necessary, as we protect ourselves from people who wrong us, who clearly and deliberately do us harm, is to inhibit our health and well-being. Socrates said: it is better to be harmed than to harm others. Jesus said: forgive others their trespasses against us. In therapy we learn that our own lives don’t flourish until we can forgive our parents, and, as Erik Erikson says, mother our mothers and father our fathers.

One organization is famous, apart from religions and their various denominations, of focusing on forgiveness and making amends to those we have wronged: Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister group Narcotics Anonymous. I have had three people close to me who pulled themselves out of addiction through A.A. I myself have been to their meetings and to Al-Anon, for relatives of alcoholics, and I’ve done the twelve steps myself.

It surprised me that A.A. turns up in A Trick of the Light. Yet it makes sense. Alcoholics, to heal, must both forgive and seek forgiveness, or make amends for what they did wrong. For many years I treasured a radio alarm clock given to me by a dear friend to make amends. Two new radios have replaced that one, but my friend’s spirit (he died in 1993 of cancer) is still part of my radio alarm clock, which I keep tuned to WCPE’s classical music.

A Trick of the Light takes place in Three Pines, with our familiar cast of characters: crotchety Ruth, the old poet; the B and B and bistro owners, Olivier and Gabri, who make sure that there is always delicious food–comfort food and comfort furnishings; and the therapist who is now a bookstore owner, Myrna.

Clara Morrow has her first big solo show of her paintings at the big Musee in Montreal, with a launching party and another at her home. Her husband, Peter, struggles with his jealousy. He was supposed to have a solo show first. He can barely stand to hear all the congratulations pouring in. The reviewers give her heady praise, but the next morning, an old friend, who’d been very cruel to Clara when they were young, is found murdered in her garden.

Inspector Gamache brings his team to the village to investigate. They question artists, dealers, and gallery owners in the art community, as well as the villagers, in search of that particular resentment that led to this death.

Another thing I love about this series is that Gamache is a good man. He suffers, but though sometimes he’s discouraged, his wisdom and love don’t fail him, and he keeps his hope, very much a secondary theme here. Is it hope that Gamache sees in the eyes of Clara’s portrait of old Ruth, or is it a merely "a trick of the light"?

I recommend Louise’s series to all my friends, whether they usually read mysteries or not. There is so much modern literature about despair and full of cynicism. Certainly, in our world today, in our country, in our local communities, it is easy to despair, to be angry, to give up our hope, to refuse to forgive. But I keep in mind Soren Kierkegaard’s idea that the opposite of despair is willing to be oneself. Louise Penny helps me do that. Check her out at

This is a picture of Louise Penny and her beloved husband, Michael.

Judy Hogan

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