Penny’s new­est shows again why she’s a fa­vorite

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Pastimes - BY MAU­REEN COR­RI­GAN The Wash­ing­ton Post

“King­dom of the Blind” is the 14th mys­tery in the In­spec­tor Ga­mache se­ries - and it’s a spell­binder. But such crit­i­cal praise hardly mat­ters any­more to this se­ries. By now Penny, de­servedly, has built up such a large com­mu­nity of ador­ing read­ers that her nov­els be­long to that most rar­i­fied of lit­er­ary cat­e­gories: They are re­view proof.

Like a slightly sin­is­ter hol­i­day let­ter, Penny’s mys­ter­ies, which have been com­ing out an­nu­ally or more for over a decade, catch read­ers up on the lat­est news with Ga­mache’s un­ruf­fled wife, Reine- Marie, his more emo­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble pro­tege and son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beau­voir, and his dear friends in Three Pines - par­tic­u­larly the fan fa­vorite, that mad, duck-tot­ing poet, Ruth Zardo. Only the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser se­ries (still on­go­ing, thanks to a tal­ented group of ghost­writ­ers) can be said to have gen­er­ated such an in­tense level of read­erly in­ter­est in the de­tec­tive’s widely as­sorted clan.

That’s not to be­lit­tle the mys­tery tale here. “King­dom of the Blind” is yet an­other out­stand­ing Ga­mache ad­ven­ture. In her by-now char­ac­ter­is­tic fash­ion, Penny si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­spools sev­eral sus­pense nar­ra­tives, each of them ac­cru­ing power and threat, faster and faster, un­til the novel closes in a crescendo of vi­o­lence, un­mask­ing and re­gret. Whew.

The eerie open­ing scene riffs on the clas­sic “dark and stormy night” for­mula: Penny con­jures up a dark and snowy morn­ing when the air is thick with men­ace. Ga­mache has just parked out­side an old farm­house in a lo­cale even more iso­lated than his beloved vil­lage of Three Pines. Crooked, rot­ting and ev­i­dently aban­doned, the farm­house also seems to be wait­ing for him. Ga­mache no­tices that “one of the up­per win­dows was boarded up, so that it looked like the place was wink­ing at him.” It was, he com­ments, “as though it knew some­thing he did not.” And, as if the at­mos­phere alone weren’t macabre enough, the rea­son Ga­mache is freez­ing the pom-poms off on his French Cana­dian in an ap­proach­ing bliz­zard is be­cause he’s been sum­moned there via let­ter by a so­lic­i­tor he knows to be dead.

Ga­mache turns out to be one of three peo­ple in­vited to that spooky farm­house (an­other is Myrna Lan­ders, who runs the book­store in Three Pines). The late owner, a woman named Bertha Baum­gart­ner, worked as a clean­ing lady but was called the Baroness be­cause of her some­what sus­pect claim of a con­nec­tion to Eu­ro­pean aris­toc­racy. Nei­ther Ga­mache nor Myrna, nor the third per­son sum­moned to the farm­house (a young con­struc­tion worker) knew the Baroness, but her lawyer gives all three the bizarre news that they’ve all been des­ig­nated as the ex­ecu­tors of her will. This pos­si­bly delu­sional doc­u­ment turns out to have the power to kill.

Mean­while, there are loose ends dan­gling from the ragged con­clu­sion of Ga­mache’s last out­ing, prompt­ing Ga­mache to ven­ture into the dru­grid­dled un­der­world of Montreal.

As al­ways, Penny’s moral vi­sion and love for her own char­ac­ters im­bue sit­u­a­tions with emo­tional depth. Over the course of this se­ries, that love has proven to be con­ta­gious. (I wit­nessed this adu­la­tion in per­son at the Na­tional Book Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber, when I in­ter­viewed Penny about her work.) “King­dom of the Blind” is an in­ge­nious mys­tery that follows a thought­ful group of beloved char­ac­ters nav­i­gat­ing their way through a fallen world. What more could a mys­tery reader want?

Mino­taur

“King­dom of the Blind” is the 14th mys­tery in the In­spec­tor Ga­mache se­ries.

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