Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Long Way Home, Louise Penny.  Minotaur Books, NY.  ISBN: 978-1-250-02206-6, Hardback trade, $27.99.  373 pages.

Louise Penny’s tenth Chief Inspector Gamache novel begins in the Canadian village of Three Pines, with Gamache and the artist Clara Morrow sitting on a bench on a hill that looks down on the village, and then through the book we are taken on a journey north up the St. Lawrence River to its upper reaches.

Clara is worried.  She had asked her husband to leave a year earlier, but he had promised to come back in exactly a year to see how things would be between them.  He didn’t return, and she risks hurting Gamache, who so needs this quiet village to heal, to help her find him.  Gamache is reluctant to leave the peace and calm he and his wife Reine-Marie had been finding in Three Pines, but he can’t turn away from helping Clara.

Gamache persuades Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his son-in-law and former assistant at the Surete du Quebec, to accompany him. Clara and her friend Myrna Landers insist on going, too.  

“All his professional life Chief Inspector Gamache had asked questions and hunted answers.  And not just answers, but facts. But, much more elusive and dangerous than facts, what he really looked for were feelings.  Because they would lead him to the truth.... he’d come to agree with Sister Prejean that no one was as bad as the worst thing they’d done.   Armand Gamache had seen the worst. But he’d also seen the best.  Often in the same person.” p. 3.

The four of them leave Three Pines in search of Peter Morrow, going first to Ontario to the art college in Toronto where Peter and Clara studied and met each other.  “Armand Gamache did not want to have to be brave.  Not any more.  Now all he wanted was to be at peace.  But, like Clara, he knew he couldn’t have one without the other.” (P. 41)

They visit Monsieur Bert Finney, Peter’s stepfather, and Irene, his mother.  She was “courteous but not kind.  She’d have made a great inquisitor except that she wasn’t at all inquisitive.”  Gamache already knew she was cruel and had “an instinct for the soft spot.” We watch her go after Gamache.  (p. 56)

Beauvoir traces Peter by credit card and bank charges to Montreal, Paris, Florence, Venice, and Dumfries, Scotland.  Then back to Toronto and Quebec City.  He took out $3000 in April of that year, the last record.  They also visit Peter’s brother and sister in Toronto.

The usual mystery plot is here reversed, and the death at the heart of the mystery does not come first.  The search is for Peter Morrow, with the fear that something bad has happened to him.  They all dread that and know that Peter had some terrible weaknesses, among them being terribly jealous of Clara as she began to get good attention in the art world for her painting, more attention that he was getting.  His painting had been successful, but it was predictable.

Clara has the artist’s rich inner life.  Her art is unique.  She sees deeply into people.  Peter doesn’t, and he’s jealous.  He needs her, but she finally realized that he was ceasing to be supportive of her art, as he had been when she was failing to get attention.  The greater her success, the worse he treated her.

Jealousy is a major theme, also that any great art or poetry springs out of the depths of the human soul.  As Alan Bradley says in The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, “Inspiration from outside one’s self is like the heat in the oven.  It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano.  It changes the face of the world.”

Penny says that poetry begins “like a lump in the throat.”–a saying of Robert Frost’s.  In this novel the emotional journey for all four of the searchers and also for Reine-Marie, left behind in Three Pines, is told in exquisite detail.  All along Louise Penny has been bold and fresh in her take on the mystery novel, but that aspect of her gift increases with time.  She keeps the reader riveted.  We love the characters and suffer with them when they suffer, as well as laughing with them when they laugh.  Don’t miss this one.

Note: The Long Way Home was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List in late August, days after it was released, when Louise Penny read to a large gathering at the Fearrington Barn near Pittsboro, NC, which I attended.  I have loved Penny’s books since 2009, when I read The Cruelest Month.  I later met her and her husband at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that May.

For more information on Penny's books:

Louise Penny signing books.

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