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Unhappy marriage

Mashup of genres from usually reliable author proves unsatisfying

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The intention of the bait-and-switch is to encourage purchases of substituted goods ....

-- Wikipedia

We've all been there, hooked by some store or other. But, while it's normally a marketing ploy, bait-and-switch can also just mean promising one thing and delivering another -- something less desirable.

And that, sadly, is the problem with popular Quebec author Louise Penny's latest offering, How the Light Gets In. Promising a ninth instalment of her well-crafted village-mystery series set in the bucolic yet disturbingly murder-prone Eastern Townships hamlet of Three Pines, Penny ultimately delivers a wildly improbable conspiracy fantasy rivalling the over-the-top excesses of Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, James Rollins and their swashbuckling ilk.

It is not a happy marriage of genres.

The tale begins intriguingly enough: Stalled in December traffic, a Quebec government clerical worker is delusionally panicked by a recurring conviction that Montreal's city-spanning Ville-Marie Tunnel will collapse.

Jump to Three Pines, where series fans will find the familiar village crew warmly bidding adieu to an elderly, enigmatic visitor, Constance Pineault.

But what of our series hero, Sûreté du Québec Chief Inspector Armand Gamache? Festering conflict with his boss, Chief Superintendent Francoeur, which had reached a point of trench warfare in 2012's A Beautiful Mystery, has left Gamache isolated and pushed to retirement, his homicide squad gutted by transfers and defections.

With his alienated lieutenant, Jean Guy Beauvoir, gone over to the enemy, only the third member of his original team, Inspector Isabelle Lacoste, remains loyal.

When the reclusive Constance, while packing for a Christmas return to Three Pines, is murdered in her Montreal home, Gamache and Lacoste discover that she is really the last surviving member of the Ouellet quintuplets (a riff on Ontario's famous Dionne sisters). Multiple road trips follow as the duo research the troubled celebrity's sordid, sensational and heavily manipulated family history in hopes of identifying the killer.

While the murder's resolution is unconvincing, given the intense publicity and official scrutiny that dogged the quints from birth to early adulthood, it's reasonable fodder for the chief inspector's introspective talents and Penny's village-whodunit motif.

That's the bait. The switch comes when poor Constance is rendered a mere blind for Gamache's frantic, perilous efforts to uncover and derail the catastrophic schemes of Francoeur and his Machiavellian political boss. In that, he and Lacoste are aided by a senior police colleague, her retired, doctor-cum-hacker husband, a disaffected, computer-savvy constable and, of course, the Three Pines cast, who scramble to bring high-speed Internet to their off-the-grid burg.

Fast-paced and compelling in itself, the ensuing cat-and-mouse pursuit not only submerges the intense introspection and characterization that is a Penny hallmark, but stumbles to a conclusion as sanguine and sentimental as is magically fortuitous. Even her title's tip of the fedora to fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen's famous song Anthem can't save her here.

Penny is one of Canada's few world-class crime writers, and A Beautiful Mystery was arguably one of last year's best domestic novels. But every few books, she has an unfortunate tendency to get carried away with an idea, theme or sentiment, sending her storylines off the rails.

After eight books, it's clear that Penny wanted to bring her Gamache series to a climax, if not a conclusion. But by opting for a "go big or go home" solution, she's undercut the quaint, moving, quasi-literary oeuvre that has made her a homegrown favourite.

Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A1

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