Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Heart of Darkness in the Novels of Louise Penny

Louise Penny has legions of fans. I once saw a packed house at the Toronto Reference Library enthusiastically waving the latest installment of her Inspector Gamache series in the air so that Penny could photograph the crowd and send it to her publisher. However, I have met a few naysayers who believe her fictional creation of the bucolic rural hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern townships, populated by eccentric but kind-hearted residents, iqs too cozy and tidy a la the television series, Morris, Lewis, or PD James’ Inspector Dalgliesh. They contend that Penny’s novels are not sufficiently gritty or cynical in the manner of the television series, Prime Suspect, with Jane Tennison not only under pressure to solve serial murders but forced to contend with sexist hostility from her male underlings, the Ian Rankin novels featuring the anti-social John Rebus, or Michael Connelly’s loner Harry Bosch surrounded by police maleficence or incompetence. In his 2013 Globe and Mail review of the CBC’s production of Still Life, John Doyle dismissed not only the program as “bland” (in which he is spot-on) but Penny’s work as “entertaining yet lacking in complexity and genuine darkness.” He speaks for those who believe that the cerebral but compassionate Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of homicide for the Quebec Sûreté, is too sympathetic or heroic and not as complex and flawed as his counterparts mentioned above. I see their point. But if her critics were to look to the edges of the mystery and the red thread that flows throughout all of the novels, they would recognize the emotional depth and that darkness does envelop – or at least threatens – the tranquil village and especially the province of Quebec where police corruption (a term that seems too mild) is deeply entrenched. 

In Still Life, Gamache notices almost in passing that the artist Peter Morrow has the potential for crossing a line. With A Trick of the Light, Gamache’s observation moves closer to the central plot after Clara Morrow’s solo exhibition in Montreal at the Musee d’Art Contemporain. Peter, who has long been recognized as a distinguished artist is so envious and jealous of his wife’s late-blooming success, Clara asks him to leave their home to find a way to exorcise his demons and return a year later so that they can assess the state of their marriage. Penny’s most recent entry, The Long Way Home (Minotaur Books, 2014), has Peter’s failure to appear as the catalyst for the narrative arc. Likewise, in A Trick of Light, Penny provides a backstory for Gamache that suggests the origins of the tension that exists between him and his superior, Chief Inspector Francoeur. Instead of looking the other way or condoning the action of a superior who has ordered the killing of natives, Gamache orders his arrest which leads to a court conviction and a prison sentence. The convicted officer is a friend of Francoeur and in subsequent novels he plots his revenge against Gamache which results in an (almost literally) explosive climax in How the Light Gets In (Minotaur Books, 2013).

The eighth installment, The Beautiful Mystery, saw Jean-Guy Beauvoir abandon his mentor, Gamache, and return to substance abuse. Things have never looked bleaker for the chief of homicide. The unscrupulous Francoeur has co-opted the fragile Beauvoir by playing on his physical and psychological pain from an old wound stemming from a catastrophic police raid that left several officers dead or wounded and getting him hooked on OxyContin. As a result of that tragic fiasco, Gamache’s department of carefully trained officers has been dismantled except for the capable Isabelle Lacoste, and the agents he now supervises, minions of Francoeur, treat their cases with blatant indifference. In How the Light Gets In (Minotaur Books, 2013) Gamache, for the first time, seems physically and emotionally vulnerable. His former protégé and friend, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir has turned against Gamache and gone over to the dark side. He can only feel bitter rage toward the man for whom he had closely worked with for fifteen years until that shootout destroyed their bond of trust. Francoeur has transferred him into his own unit and supervision where he could better control him and ensure his downward spiral into the depths of addiction. In the meantime, Gamache, for the first time, seems physically and emotionally vulnerable, and more human. He is increasingly isolated and bedeviled by doubts. During a potentially violent confrontation in police headquarters, he realizes he has been completely ostracized by the officers around him, ones who had once revered him. Penny writes:
Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed that light would banish the shadows. . . .He believed that evil had its limits. But looking at the young men and women staring at him now, who’d seen something terrible about to happen and had done nothing, Chief Inspector Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. Maybe the darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits.
But Gamache still has his police duties and it is with relief that Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines to do a favor for Myrna, the retired therapist-turned-bookstore owner. A friend and former patient, Constance, was supposed to spend Christmas with Myrna but never arrived. Gamache finds the 79-year-old Constance dead, having been attacked in her home. It turns out the privacy-loving woman was the last survivor of the once famous family, the Ouellet Quints, who were taken from their farming parents during the Great Depression and turned into public curiosities. (Penny acknowledges her debt to the real-life story of the Dionne quintuplets, whose parents ceded custody of their daughters to the government of Ontario, which then made millions off the sisters as a tourist attraction.) Another narrative thread involves the apparent suicide of a middle-aged government worker who appears to have jumped off a bridge to her death. The third and the most emotionally gripping, given the bitter history between the officers, is an epic conspiracy concocted by the sinister Francoeur whose obsession for revenge may not end with the disgrace and retirement of Gamache but with a nefarious scheme that involves public officials at the highest level, one that could cause the death of innocent Quebecers in order to fulfill Francoeur’s ambitions. If I have any quibble with this novel, I did wonder whether the monstrous portrait of Francoeur is credible. Destroying the reputation of a rival is highly believable but orchestrating agent provocateurs to set off an act of terrorism is something else. Nonetheless, that Penny is able to draw these plotlines together is testament to her imagination and writing skill.

The apocalyptic clash between the forces of the two men takes place in Three Pines, an Internet “dead zone,” where Gamache gathers the few officers loyal to him in an effort to understand a shadowy conspiracy that he believes is behind the recent turmoil. The cellphone-free village is a retreat, a refuge and a secret base which allows them to work out a counter strategy without being monitored by the IT people working for Francoeur. It is also there in that isolated village where an unexpected source taps into Beauvoir’s humanity, and that a moment of grace, which allows the troubled officer to retreat back from that dark line, ignites the spark that provides the necessary support to thwart the malevolent designs of Francoeur and his loyal supporters.

If How the Light Gets In gives us an exhilarating ride to its pulsating conclusion, The Long Way Home is a marked departure for Penny. There is no violent death until the end of the novel and it is not a traditional mystery but one that is laced with reflections about maintaining or losing one’s psychic health and about art, that which inspires it and what defiles it. As Penny acknowledges, this novel has been highly influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Homer’s The Odyssey. In her earlier novels, she wrote about the glories of art and scathingly about greed, pettiness and jealousy among artists. In Home, she continues in that vein by embarking not so much on a geographical and artistic journey – though that she does – but on an interior one that allows her to explore not only what it is that makes a creative artist, but more importantly, a better man or the converse, one who loses his soul.

Home opens with Gamache and Beauvoir recovering from their physical wounds and attempting to exorcise their own demons through therapy. Gamache has retired from the Sûreté and has moved along with his wife and dog to Three Pines to seek peace and healing after the near-fatal traumas he has experienced. He reads daily from a little book, The Balm in Gilead which he shows to almost no one. The title is based on an old spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There’s power enough in Heaven to cure a sin-sick soul.” Gamache is haunted by the possibility that he possesses a sin-sick soul. But good food, conversation and the natural beauty of the village contribute to his restoration. His therapist, Myrna, marvels that after all the “harrowing scenes” he has witnessed Gamache has “kept his humanity throughout it all.” While Gamache is recuperating, the artist Clara asks for Gamache’s assistance to help her find Peter who has not returned; she is convinced that something is wrong. There is no doubt that he will respond favourably to her request even though Myrna asks him to consider the potential dangers and the fragile state of his own mental health. Gamache’s answer is worth quoting: “What’s the use of healing if the life that is saved is callow and selfish and ruled by fear? There’s a difference between being in sanctuary and being in hiding.” He is convinced that the courage to act is the only way to prevent a haven from becoming a prison.

Accordingly, Gamache is able to persuade his successor as head of homicide, Isabelle Lacoste, to allow Beauvoir, who has reconciled with his former boss, some release time from his regular duties so that Gamache and his recent son-in-law can work as a team again to discover what may have happened to another sick-sin soul, Peter Morrow, albeit in an unofficial capacity. Through credit card searches and email correspondence, Gamache, his wife Reine-Marie, Beauvoir, Clara, and other members of the community are able to track Peter to Paris a town in Scotland where a surrealistic garden there inspires him to paint in a manner that he avoided as a traditional artist likely because it was risky and might sully his reputation. In his journey to find his better self, he travelled to Toronto and to the wilds at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Two members from Gamache’s group travel to Toronto to meet with one of Peter’s former art teachers and members of Peter’s family. There they hear about another of Peter’s former teachers, a dangerously obsessive artist who has long disappeared from the art scene, and see the childlike abstract paintings that Peter had shipped there from Scotland. Then several of them follow his transcontinental trek to a remote rural area of Quebec, one so desolate, so damned, explorer Cartier called it "the land God gave to Cain." And there in this “heart of darkness,” they discover the terrible damage done by a sin-sick soul.

The closer they come to their destination by a small aircraft, by boat and by walking, the mystery and narrative pace picks up. In a novel that raises so many questions about art and artists who painted the wilds, Penny finds an imaginative way to fashion a murder weapon. If a person becomes desperate and crazed, what would act as a check upon his murderous impulses? At one point, Gamache reminds Peter that his jealousy might have destroyed his marriage. “Imagine what you would have done had the love not been there? Had there been hate instead? Love of Clara gave you some brakes, at least. A line beyond which you wouldn’t cross.” When there is no love or friendship, but only raw envy, self-hate and the psychic poison that corrupts the heart of an artist who has lost contact with his muse, the transgression of any line is possible. Some readers might not enjoy this character-driven novel because the pacing, suspense and the mystery that exemplifies How the Light Gets In are more muted in the Long Way Home. Because it stretches the boundaries of the genre to explore what it is to be human – or to lose one’s humanity – I think Home is her most satisfying novel yet.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin LadenHis website is

1 comment:

  1. I have, as yet, read only the first seven novels. I'm glad to have so much to which I can look forward.