Louise Penny's The Murder Stone

In my last post, I suggested that an economical way of visiting Martha’s Vineyard is to read Craig’s Vineyard Stalker. If you are looking for another place to visit via mystery novel, I would highly recommend Louise Penny’s The Murder Stone, a story set in picturesque Quebec. Before becoming a novelist, Louise Penny worked as a journalist, radio host, and documentary producer for the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation). Starting with her first novel in 2006, Penny has won numerous awards. Her Inspector Gamche series has garnered two Anthonys and more Agatha awards than any other mystery series.

The Murder Stone (American title: A Rule Against Murder) is her fourth Inspector Gamache novel. Most of the books in this series are located in or near Three Pines, a peaceful village close to the Quebec/American border. A New York Times bestseller, The Murder Stone was chosen as The Globe and Mail’s 2008 Mystery of the Year. It also received starred reviews in Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Booklist.

The novel begins at the height of summer, as Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sȗreté du Québec celebrate his thirty-fifth anniversary with his wife at the Manoir Bellechasse. They meet the wealthy Finneys who arrive at the manoir for a family reunion. Julia Martin, who has been estranged from the family for most of her adult life, is found murdered on the manoir grounds. Prime suspects in the case are the family members attending the reunion.

Like the locked-room mystery, this murder appears to be an utterly impossible crime – one that defies all logic. As we learn more about the family, we shift our suspicions from one suspect to the next. The ending is utterly surprising but in retrospect, skillfully prepared for.

Gamache as detective is one of the strongest appeals of the novel. Boston Globe correspondent Judith Mass observes that he is the antithesis of the hard-boiled sleuth: “his strength as a detective flows from an unassuming nature – he is receptive rather than street-smart, willing to ‘let the village happen around him,’ to wait patiently for ‘people to reveal themselves.’ The best way to learn, he believes, is to forge connections.”

Gamache’s insight into the criminal’s psyche is born of personal experience. Parallels between his background and the murderer’s provide added interest in the narrative. Unlike his colleagues who prefer exploring the known world, Gamache walks
into the unknown. Because that’s where murderers lurked....

The reason Armand Gamache could go there was because it wasn’t totally foreign to him. He knew it because he’d seen his own burned terrain, he’d walked off the familiar and comfortable path inside his own head and heart and seen what festered in the dark. (221-22)
Penny writes that the Manoir Bellechase is “one of the finest auberges in Quebec” (3). She sprinkles French terms such as this throughout the novel, immersing us in the atmosphere of the locale. The Murder Stone is a cozy novel set in a breathtakingly beautiful rural setting, one that Marilyn Stasio calls “other-worldly and altogether enchanting.” Dominating the novel is the manoir itself, an oasis and healing place set in the rich abundance of the Canadian landscape. The maître d’, we are told,
sometimes felt like an emergency room physician. People streamed through his door, casualties of city life, lugging a heavy world behind them. Broken by too many demands, too little time, too many bills, emails, meetings, calls to return, too little thanks and too much, way too much, pressure. (27)
But the Manoir Bellechase is not simply a rural retreat and variation of the country house motif. The novel begins with a prologue that describes its origins: a place built by Robber Barons over a century ago.
There was something unnatural about the Manoir Bellechasse from the beginning. It was staggeringly beautiful, the stripped logs golden and glowing. It was made of wood and wattle and sat right at the water’s edge. It commanded Lac Massawippi, as the Robber Barons commanded everything. . . .

The Manoir Bellechasse was created and conceived to allow these men to do one thing. Kill. (2)
The crime of the novel does not stand in isolation; it is rooted in the social fabric of this world.

Penny, as Stasio points out, gives “the village mystery an elegance and depth not often seen in this traditional genre. The Murder Stone is a novel that has it all: intriguing plot, psychologically convincing characters, mesmerizing surroundings, thought-provoking analysis, and evocative language.

Penny, Louise. The Murder Stone. London: Headline, 2008.