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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Murder Stone

Reviewed: August 4, 2009
By: Louis Penny
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
312 pages, $24.95

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie have made a annual anniversary pilgrimage to the Manoir Bellechasse for many years, but this particular year is destined to be different than any of the others. This year there will be murder.

In her preface author Louise Penny notes that the massive log hotel in the woods is somewhat based on a real life place that she and her husband visit frequently. One imagines that her regular setting in the town of Three Pines bears some resemblance to her actual home in Sutton, Quebec, though it is to be hoped that the body count there is somewhat lower.

In this sense there is some connection between Penny’s work and that of Agatha Christie, who liked to place corpses in small villages, country estates and large hotels, and who also liked to spend time on setting the stage. I must say, though, that our introduction to the Manoir Bellechasse felt almost like the preface to a James Michener novel: three pages covering a century of local development.

Another touch which brings early Christie to mind is Penny’s habit of shifting the narrative point of view around. Gamache is the central character, and we spend some time looking through his eyes, but we eavesdrop on the thoughts and reactions of many other people during the course of this book, sometimes hitting several points of view in the space of a couple of pages. I found this jarring at first, the more standard practice being to spend entire chapters in one particular head, but I eventually came to appreciate the way Penny moves her omniscient narrator around a room and through the hotel.

The selection of the victim brings Dame Agatha to mind, though the Finney family is full of so many annoying people what it was a little hard to pick the person most likely to die. I had actually expected it to be the grand dame of the family rather than the black sheep daughter.

Murder occurs offstage, though one of the pieces of the murder weapon - the stone of the title - is introduced quite early. The Finney family also have an annual reunion, what seems to be a perennial opportunity to whetstone their tempers against each other, and this year the main event is the unveiling of a statue in honour of Charles Morrow, the children’s father, Mrs. Finney’s first husband and the second generation builder of the family fortune.

Just how his massive petrified wood statue could have slid off that marble base and crushed poor Julia is one of the abiding mysteries behind this murder, and it is only after a couple of chance events reveal a possible answer to Gamache that he is able to put the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together.

There are, as Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song once out it, “too many clues in this room”: too many suspects, too many motives, too many family secrets, too much anger, too much that has been misunderstood for years. I don’t mean that as a complaint. Red herrings are an essential part of any decent mystery, and it’s nice when it’s not entirely obvious what colour the fish are.

It’s often the case these days that the murder mystery is used as a basket within which to place a lot of other story material. Here we have the lovely relationship between Gamache and his wife; the faltering development of the inspector’s assistants; the sharp edges of the many relationships within the Finney/Morrow clan; the dynamics of running a first class rural retreat hotel, and the strained relationships between long time workers and new summer staff.

It’s a nice mix, and to top it all off, I did not see the solution coming until just before the author was ready to have Gamache show it to me.

This is the fourth mystery in the series known as either the Inspector Gamache mysteries or the Three Pines Mysteries. The first three have sold well and won a number of awards. Indeed, Penny was first published, after many rejections by publishers, when her first manuscript took second place in a British contest for unpublished writers.

The Murder Stone (also in print as A Rule Against Murder in the USA) has been named one of Booklist’s Top Ten Mysteries of the Year.

Penny is a former CBC journalist and radio host who walked away from that career to begin a writing career and spent five depressing years attempting to write the wrong kind of book before she realized what she should be writing. That she is set to launch book six in the series, The Brutal Telling, this September is a sign that she got it right.

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