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Tribune News Service
Colette Bancroft

Louise Penny paints a dark picture in ‘A World of Curiosities’

"A World of Curiosities" by Louise Penny; Minotaur Books (398 pages, $29.99)


I’m always a little surprised to hear Louise Penny’s mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache referred to as “cozies.” Perhaps those readers are responding to the charming Quebec town of Three Pines that’s home to Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, a postcard-worthy hamlet with a population of quirky but lovable characters.

But other main traits of the cozy mystery — decorous crimes committed offstage with a minimum of bloodshed — are not in Penny’s playbook. Many of her novels, including the newest, “A World of Curiosities,” are powered by disturbing violence and thrilling pursuit.

Gamache does not solve crimes by adjusting his pince-nez and issuing a deduction. He charges into the fray, in this book going hand to hand with a whole family of terrifying villains. And he’s got the scars to prove it.

Three Pines is indeed a cozy haven. But Gamache knows monsters lurk beyond it, and sometimes come right in.

“A World of Curiosities” is Penny’s 18th novel, not counting “State of Terror,” the bestselling 2021 thriller she co-wrote with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Penny opens this book with a flashback to Gamache’s first meeting with the man who would become both his professional right hand and his son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. They first worked together, when Gamache was head of homicide for the Surete du Quebec, on the murder of an addict and sex worker named Clotilde Arsenault. They soon discovered that she had also trafficked her children, 13-year-old Fiona and 10-year-old Sam, and that the crime was even more tragic than they imagined.

Woven into that story is another flashback, to Gamache’s experiences on the day of the real-life mass shooting in 1989 at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, where a man with a gun slaughtered 14 women, most of them engineering students at the university, and injured another 14 people.

In the novel’s present day, Gamache and his wife are attending a ceremony at the college that combines a remembrance of the victims and the graduation of a new class of engineering students that includes two young women close to them.

One is Harriet Landers, the niece of Myrna Landers, who owns the bookstore in Three Pines and is a close friend of the Gamaches. The other is Fiona Arsenault, whom they have helped in the years after her mother’s murder.

The graduation celebration in Three Pines is joyful, but Gamache is put off by the presence of Sam Arsenault. He’s grown up to be a charming, attractive young man, but there’s something about him Gamache doesn’t trust.

The attention of everyone in Three Pines is soon drawn, though, to a perplexing letter forwarded to Myrna’s partner, Billy Williams. Written more than a century ago by a stonemason and bricklayer who was one of Billy’s ancestors, it describes a job the man did in Three Pines, a secret assignment to brick up a room, which filled him with nameless dread.

If the room exists, it would be located right off the loft where Billy and Myrna live.

Finding the room is the easy part. What’s inside it is utterly confounding. At first glance it appears to be a huge painting, a real-life work from the 17th century known as “The Paston Treasure” — but that painting, though its origins and painter are mysteries, is in fact housed in a museum in England.

And, on closer inspection, the copy in the secret room is packed with anachronistic and baffling details. Who painted it, how did they get it into the secret room — and why?

Gamache knows it’s more than an art history puzzle. Everyone, he reflects, has a secret room; he has one in his home’s basement, full of old case files. “Either in their home, or their head, or their heart,” he thinks. “Where things that should never see the light of day waited.”

The painting’s discovery will unleash a bloody retribution that Gamache never expected, and that threatens not just his life but everything dear to him. Cozy it’s not, but “A World of Curiosities” is an irresistible read.

Now streaming

If you’re a fan of Louise Penny’s books, you’ll want to check out Amazon Prime’s new series “Three Pines.” Its first two episodes dropped Dec. 2, with two to come each Friday through Dec. 23. Each two-episode arc takes its plot from a single novel, with one story, about the disappearance of an Indigenous woman, threading throughout the season.

Alfred Molina is spot on as Gamache, capturing his warmth, weariness and strength. Much of the filming was done on location in Quebec, giving the scenes a chilly authenticity. And it’s interesting to see Gamache come to Three Pines for the first time as an outsider and get to know its people before becoming a resident himself.

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