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Clued out

Gamache thriller brings backstories, super-villains… and plenty of questions

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Never before have we seen Armand Gamache so close to erupting in rage so often, nor have we ever before seen him so fearful that evil will harm everyone he loves.

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Never before have we seen Armand Gamache so close to erupting in rage so often, nor have we ever before seen him so fearful that evil will harm everyone he loves.

Nor, sadly, have we ever before seen Canada’s pre-eminent murder mystery author Louise Penny weave so convoluted and confounding a tale, which at book’s end leaves us asking so many questions for which we have not read answers.

A World of Curiosities is a story of backstories, of origins, of hatred and revenge, and especially of misogyny, that ultimately takes us to the series’ beloved rural Quebec haven of Three Pines, where the greatest evil the head of homicide for Sûreté du Québec has ever known threatens to destroy everything he loves.

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Readers might find themselves with a similarly perplexed look as Alfred Molina, who plays Armand Gamache in Three Pines, the TV adaptation of Louise Penny’s books about the inspector.

Origins? We learn how and why Gamache became a homicide detective, how he met future son-in-law and deputy Jean-Guy Beauvoir, how the village of Three Pines came to be and how the three pines were planted. Possibly those with expertise within your book club can discuss the longevity of pine trees.

Backstory? Young constable Gamache was dispatched on Dec. 6, 1989, to École Polytechnique in Montreal, where he assisted a badly-injured young engineering student. She is real, Penny later tells us, and signed off on this portion of the book.

More backstory: Gamache and Beauvoir investigated the murder of a young drug-addicted single mother in rural Quebec, leaving behind a little girl and even smaller boy. No further details here, but what you’ll learn is beyond vile.

When the story reaches our now, Gamache believes the sister to have been mal-served by the world, and the brother to be a deadly sociopath. Beauvoir believes the exact opposite. And the adult siblings are in Three Pines.

There’s a very mysterious — well, you’d hope it would be, in a murder mystery, wouldn’t you? — ancient letter that reaches someone in Three Pines, which leads to the discovery that psychologist-turned-bookseller Myrna has a secret room above her attic, walled off since the 1800s. Yes, the plot does indeed thicken.

Early on, Penny tells us Gamache fears only one person, so evil is that man, though, that it’s no problem — he’s tucked away in prison forever. That’s never a spoiler in a murder mystery — we know that once mentioned, he’ll figure into the story eventually.

Does it make sense that a cop as sharp as Gamache would not instantly recognize such a monster? Would the Gamache we know from 17 previous books be close to losing it as he tried to sleuth which of half a dozen red-herring men of similar age and build were this monster, if any of them?

There is just so much going on here that the always meticulous Penny doesn’t explain to us.

How one of the worst criminals in Canada could get out of prison without anyone being aware he’s gone — well, there’s an explanation that tells us just the first step of the many further steps which remain unaddressed.

We learn a character begat another character, but not how he ever met the mother, or just how and when he developed a relationship with his offspring. How did that character ever meet another with whom there is no biological connection, and from whence did such fierce secret loyalty spring? How and when could someone have possibly become another character’s spouse? Penny doesn’t tell us.

It is so tempting for authors to create a Professor Moriarty — a super-villain whose impossible escapes don’t have to be explained, who creates identities at will, who plots and moves freely and openly among us without any apparent means of having refuge, food or equipment, but who has all the money he needs to be an evil mastermind. Someone who somehow manages to attract minions loyal to the death.

A World of Curiosities is suspenseful to be sure, engaging most certainly. Alas, we have come to expect so much more from Louise Penny.

Retired Free Press reporter Nick Martin wishes there was a legal way to watch one show such as Three Pines without having to subscribe to an entire streaming service.

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