On the surface, this seems like a regular whodunit. But it is more than that—a story about losing and finding yourself, about art and landscape, and escaping from your past.
Armand Gamache, the former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sureté du Quebec, has retired with his wife Reine-Marie to Three Pines, a village with other people like him—people who have left their pasts behind. There is Myrna, a psychologist who now runs a bookshop (and provides therapy to her friends), Clara, an artist, Ruth, a bad-tempered poet and her duck, Rosa (no one is sure whether it should be Ruth and her duck or Rosa and her human).
Every morning, Armand sits on a bench overlooking the village with a book in his hand, The Balm of Gilead. Every morning Clara sits next to him but does not say much. Then one day she tells him that she is worried about her husband, Peter, who has disappeared. An established artist when Clara became famous, Peter had trouble dealing with her success. Upset at his lack of support, she suggested they take a year’s break from each other. Exactly a year later, Peter was supposed to come back, and they would see how they felt. However, Peter, normally very meticulous, did not show up on the appointed day, nor did he call or write.
Armand hates the thought of going back to the world he had left behind, but Clara is a friend. He asks his son-in-law, Jean-Guy, who used to be his second-in-command, for help, and the group of friends try to track Peter down.
The missing Peter is the centre of the book, and Louise Penny slowly and skilfully builds up a picture of the man. He grew up with a domineering, vicious mother, who stifled his creativity. He is obsessive about order and his paintings reflect this: they are controlled, detailed and essentially soulless. Unlike Clara’s, whose portraits are much less technically proficient but are windows into the soul of the sitter.
The friends start making enquiries, and find that Peter has been to see his old professor, Paul Massey, who taught Peter and Clara at the Ontario College of Canadian Arts. Professor Massey is well-liked by the students—he is a kindly man, known for being a mentor to young artists. Clara remembers a messianic young professor, Sébastien Norman—he believed in a tenth muse, the muse of painting (it’s odd, there isn’t a muse for painting among the nine). Massey thought Norman was unstable and fired him. Norman has disappeared—the only sign of him is a painting in the school yearbook of a crazed man. Is it a self-portrait?
Eventually, the child of Peter’s sister Marianna shows them paintings that turn out to be ones that Peter made during the year he was on his own. The paintings break every rule, are wild and not very good. It feels like he was going against everything that had been important to him. What was Peter trying to say? Were they are reflection of his mind, an indication that he has gone off the rails or was he trying to tap into something deep inside himself?
Clara, Myrna, Armand and Jean-Guy track Peter down to the mouth of the St. Lawrence river, a place that is so wild and inhospitable that the mariners called it the land God gave to Cain. There they find that Norman, calling himself No Man, had set up an arts community in the woods, and that Peter had followed him there. What happened in this wild place?
This is a slow-burning story. Unlike most whodunits, there is no body to kick things off. There is, instead, an exploration into identity and what lies beneath the surface. There is a “sin-sick soul” but it isn’t clear who that is until the end. I found this an absorbing and rewarding book. It’s one of a series Penny has written about Armand Ganache. I’m going to look for more of these.