A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny
If you’re a mystery fan, hopefully you are already aware that there’s scarcely anyone who can touch Louise Penny in the art of modern mystery-writing. Jacqueline Winspear and P.D. James both write well-crafted, occasionally brilliant novels, but in her emotional astuteness, playful style, and superb plot-building, Penny is the only mystery novelist alive today who I find to be a worthy successor (at her best) to Agatha Christie. In particular, I think that Ms. Christie would have been pleased to read a writer who could not only craft chilling, dark plotlines that unflinchingly trace the lines of human evil, greed, and envy, but who also – as Christie almost invariably did – returns to a place of distinct hope at the end of each novel. Human beings are fallen creatures in Penny’s work, but they are also creatures of light, capable of forgiveness and of loving persistently in the face of a dark world. Penny always returns to characters at the end of the novel their humanity, no matter how dragged into the dirt they have necessarily been over the course of it, and for that, I love her.
All of which is to say, A Trick of the Light, which was nominated for four mystery awards and won the Anthony Award for Best Novel in 2012, is one of Penny’s best yet. Lillian Dyson is a vicious art critic who made a career out of destroying artists’ careers and willpower. 20 years ago, she dropped out of the Montreal art scene and hasn’t been seen since – until she shows up dead on the lawn of her childhood best friend Clara Morrow. Clara, an artist with a rare gift who has unexpectedly risen out of obscurity to do a solo show that astounds the art world, has long hated Lillian for ruining her early career. Chief Inspector Gamache is called to the idyllic village of Three Pines to investigate the murder, and alongside colleagues Jean Guy Beauvoir and Agent Lacoste.
The novel is immediately gripping – it starts out through Clara’s eyes, the unknown, struggling artist who in her 50’s finds herself on the cusp of incredible success, and is filled with fear that she will lose the life she had. At her art show at the famed Musée in Montreal, nearly all the major players are introduced, their emotions, desires, affections colliding and making a play of relational light and shadow. From there, the murder is quickly introduced, made all the more gripping by the mystery initially surrounding the dead woman’s identity, and by how slowly the details of her background and history unfold. Three-fourths of the way through the novel we’re still finding out more about the victim, and Penny creates a multi-layered mystery because not only is it unclear who killed her, but it’s also a puzzle how she knew how to get to Clara’s house, what she was doing there, and how it was possible that no-one saw her prior to her death.
Psychologically deft, the novel is almost too complex relationally, as it charts nearly a dozen complicated relationships and people – it runs the risk of minimizing the crime, which is at the end of the day what we’re all here for, but just pulls back from that. Among them, the heart is probably Jean Guy Beauvoir, who is quietly approaching a breakdown while hiding from Gamache the truth of who he’s in love with, and Clara and her artist husband Peter, who loves her, and wants to have her faith in God and in humanity, and finds himself selfish and weak in the face of her success. The resolve to the murder mystery is perhaps very slightly anti-climactic, since the relationships and the personalities at this point have very nearly overshadowed the crime, but it is surprising, not easily guessed, which is mainly what one wants from a murderer revealed.
A luminous novel, dark yet shot through with humor and hope, and a deft, beautifully plotted mystery. A good read.
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