Every August for the past few years I’ve read the latest Armand Gamache detective novel by Louise Penny. And, every August for the past few years, I’ve been ruined for reading other books until the spell of Gamache dissipates a bit. It’s not that all of Penny’s mysteries are great; some are merely good. All of them, however, are infused with an idiosyncratic tone and worldview — fiercely moral though sometimes cruel and filled with poetry, eccentric characters and a reassuring sense of community. Finishing a Gamache novel always feels to me like being expelled from a somewhat more shadowy incarnation of Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood.
That feeling is intensified whenever a story takes place, as “Glass Houses” does, in Three Pines, the remote Canadian village where Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, have a house. “Glass Houses,” the 13th in the series, is one of the great Gamaches. Along with the usual attractions, this latest entry offers an intricately braided plot and a near apocalyptic climax. (How many times can Penny conjure up such boffo endings for her novels? By my count, she’s come up with three, but I may be forgetting an apocalypse or two.)
On the first page of “Glass Houses,” Gamache is already in the hot seat — in more ways than one. It’s high summer in Old Montreal and Gamache, who is now the chief superintendent of the Surete du Quebec, is sweating in the witness box in the stifling Palais de Justice. He’s being questioned about a murder that took place in Three Pines the previous autumn. Under interrogation by the chief crown prosecutor, Gamache describes a Halloween costume party held in the village’s Bistro (the scene of many a meal of boeuf bourguignon and red wine shared among the Gamaches and village regulars such as Myrna the bookstore owner and Ruth the mad poet and her companion, Rosa the duck).
Reminiscent of the climactic scene of Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal tale “The Masque of the Red Death,” the Bistro Halloween party comes to a hushed halt when a macabre figure appears, cloaked in heavy black wool robes, black mask, gloves, boots and a hood. At first, some of the villagers think the stranger is dressed as Darth Vader. Then, Gamache recalls, “a space opened up around the dark figure. It was as though he occupied his own world. His own universe. Where there was no Halloween party. No revelers. No laughter. No friendship.” When asked what he thought it was, Gamache replies: “I thought it was Death.”
Of course, Gamache was right.
Before “Glass Houses” concludes — with that aforementioned near apocalyptic finish — that stranger will be identified as wearing the costume of “The Cobrador,” or debt collector. The Cobrador is a centuries-old Spanish figure whose job it is to follow deadbeats and silently intimidate them into settling their bills. The Cobrador who materializes in Three Pines, however, is a more sinister version of the traditional character: He collects debts of conscience, not cash. Another intersecting story line deals with both the current opioid epidemic and a disturbing role that the otherwise tranquil village of Three Pines played during Prohibition.
Enough. Any plot summary of Penny’s novels inevitably falls short of conveying the dark magic of this series.
No other writer, no matter what genre they work in, writes like Penny. Her sentences are usually short and her paragraphs often a few brief sentences long. Her characters are distilled to their essences. The stylistic result is that a Gamache mystery reads a bit like an incantatory epic poem. Here, for instance, is a passage introducing Isabelle Lacoste, whom Gamache has promoted to be his successor as head of homicide:
“Gamache had hired Lacoste a few years earlier, at the very moment she was about to be let go from the Surete. For being different. For not taking part in the bravado of crime scenes. For trying to understand suspects and not just break them.
“For kneeling down beside the corpse of a recently dead woman and promising, within earshot of other agents, to help her find peace. . . .
“Instead of responding to the critics, as some within her division had begged her to do, Lacoste had simply gone about her job.
“And that job, she knew with crystalline clarity, was indeed simple though not easy.
“The rest was just noise.”
It takes nerve and skill — as well as heart — to write mysteries like this. “Glass Houses,” along with many of the other Gamache books, is so compelling that, for the space of reading it, you may well feel that much of what’s going on in the world outside the novel is “just noise.”
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Louise Penny
Minotaur. 400 pp. $28.99