When I came to Minotaur as a publicist in 2008, I was told that soon I’d begin working with the talented Louise Penny. I was handed a galley of A Rule Against Murder. It was July, and I dove into this wonderful summertime mystery, entranced. I had the utmost pleasure reading it, with its enchanting prose, exquisite storytelling, and a vivid cast of characters. Ghostly father figures lurk, their children left behind to ponder their anxieties and disappointments. Nothing is quite as it seems. I luxuriated in the setting of the Quebec forest with its creatures and secrets, the sprawling Manoir Bellechasse, and the strange Morrow family, who share DNA, a mutual distrust of one another, and not much else. And I met the Gamaches for the first time . . . Reine-Marie and Armand, celebrating their anniversary. Their loving union was a poetic and clever foil to the Morrows’ quiet hostility toward one another. I was hooked.
Those who have read Louise Penny’s books always remember their first one. A Rule Against Murder will always be one of my favorites for this reason. It does not take place in the beloved Three Pines, true, but Louise begins a journey here that explores Quebec and its history a bit deeper. To do this, we have to leave Three Pines from time to time.
I still remember speaking to Louise on the phone for the first time that late July. What was to come of that conversation was one of the most rewarding relationships I’ve found since becoming a publicist. We brainstormed about strategy for her new book, and I came away once again entranced, but also energized. That conversation that was the first of many fun strategy conversations with one of the cleverest minds I know. Many have asked me what it is like to work with Louise Penny. It is the same as reading one of her books: it is a powerful―and empowering―experience, sprinkled with some mischievous laughter along the way.
Recap (Chapters 1–12)
In the prologue, we meet the magnificent Manoir Bellechasse and its many makers, and its troublesome history before being turned into the finest auberges in Quebec. And we are forewarned: “The Robber Barons were back. They’d come to the Manoir Bellechasse once again, to kill.”
Gamache and Reine-Marie, following a decades-long tradition, have arrived at the Manoir Bellechasse to celebrate their thirty-fifth anniversary. The owner, Clementine Dubois, greets them warmly. But she apologizes and says that they unfortunately will have one of the smaller rooms in the back, as the Manoir is completely booked because of a family reunion. The Gamaches, simply happy to be there and see the ancient Madame Dubois one more year, begin their leisurely and luxurious stay. As the days pass, the Gamaches slowly get a sense of the wealthy Finneys:
Irene Finney: The Matriarch. Plump with soft white hair, with lots of white makeup to match her white complexion. “She looked like a soft, inviting, faded pillow, propped next to a cliff face.”
Bert Finney: The cliff face, Irene’s impossibly ugly husband, nearing ninety, Gamache guesses. He doesn’t say much, but seems courtly in his own way.
Thomas: The oldest brother, slim and attractive, and the most successful of all of the siblings. He’s polished yet cold, and likes to provoke his siblings.
Sandra: Thomas’ wife, seemingly bursting at the seams with insecurity and unhappiness and constantly making unreasonable demands on the staff of the Manoir Bellechasse.
Julia: The oldest daughter. Fair, lovely, and charming, she married a wealthy man, but is undergoing a divorce after his fraudulent investment practices came to light, and caused a very public scandal.
Marianna: The ugliest of all of the children, both in manners and appearance, she seems like an interloper to the family. She’s the only sibling who has a child, whom she seems to be raising in a very strange way.
Bean: Marinanna’s child, blond and beautiful, ten years old and often escaping into books and imagination. It’s not immediately apparent if Bean is a boy or a girl.
Gamache notices that this doesn’t feel like a very close or warm family. With the exception of Bert Finney, who is friendly to the Gamaches, the rest of the family seem ill at ease, trading awkward silences for subtle barbs toward one another. A couple of the Finneys surmise that Armand and his wife must be some sort of shopkeeper and cleaning woman since they were staying in a “broom closet” of a room at the Manoir.
The terrible heat and humidity feel like threat of what is to come. Pierre, the maître d’, has warned the guests that a storm is coming. What should be a relaxing retreat so far seems peppered with problems. Thomas and Julia both mention that Spot and Claire, the last of their siblings and his wife, will be arriving soon, and hint that they’re the worst ones of the family—hard to believe given what the family is like. Julia in particular is dreading it, and during an illicit smoke outside one evening, she confides to Gamache that her family makes her miserable.
Armand Gamache also hears some news from home that is unsettling for him. Reine-Marie had talked with their daughter-in-law, and learns they may name their baby after Armand’s father if it’s a boy. It’s meant to be a wonderful gesture, but to Armand, it’s troubling.
The staff at the Manoir have their own problems. Pierre, the maître d’ who has worked there for decades, is having trouble with the young Elliot. He’s one of the new servers and openly challenges Pierre’s authority, causing mischief among the ranks. Normally Pierre is exceptionally patient, and has trained young workers summer after summer, but Elliot seems a special case. Chef Veronique, who has also worked there for as long as Pierre has, tries to support the maître d’ who is also her friend, and asks him why Elliot gets to him. Pierre doesn’t have an answer.
The morning arrives that the loathsome final pair of Finneys are to arrive, but to the Gamaches’ surprise and delight, it turns out to be Peter and Clara Morrow, who they know from Three Pines. “Spot” was the nickname his siblings gave him. The two couples rejoice in seeing one another at the Manoir.
Gamache and Reine-Marie then learn from Madame Dubois that the whole family isn’t the Finney family—they are the Morrow family. Charles Morrow, Irene’s first husband, had died some time ago, and then she married Burt Finney. The children are Morrows. And the reason for this family reunion is to unveil a statue in Charles Morrow’s image that will sit forever on the grounds of the Manoir Bellechasse. Gamache had wondered about a huge marble plinth sitting very unnaturally on a corner of the grounds earlier. Soon, Madam Dubois says, the statue will arrive, and the grand unveiling will take place.
Clara especially feels uncomfortable with Peter’s refined but rude family—his mother calls her “Claire,” even after Clara being married to her son for years—and they ignore her good news that she will soon have her own solo show at the prestigious Galerie Fortin in Montreal. Clara came to the reunion to protect Peter from this horrid family, but that becomes difficult when Peter seems to regress in their presence, almost not in control of his own voice anymore—which is a source of at least one fight between the couple while they’re there.
Bean finds trouble when playing near the marble plinth and gets attacked by bees. Gamache removes the stingers and poison sacs and Reine-Marie applies calamine and kisses them better, while the rest of the Morrows stand nearby, squabbling with one another.
The big moment of the unveiling of the statue finally arrives, and is strangely anticlimactic. The Morrows say nothing after the canvas hood comes off, and continue on with their day.
The Gamaches take a look later, and are struck by the strangeness of it. The statue of Charles Morrow seems odd: While it looks as if he’s about to take a step, the figure does not look powerful and authoritative. His head is bowed, and although he’s about to say something, whatever he’s seeing has literally turned him to stone. Gamache wonders how the Morrows really feel about the statue.
That same evening, the guests are mingling and talking. The Gamaches talk breezily with Peter and Clara, and share some embarrassing news about the first time Armand met Reine-Marie’s family. Just then the rest of the Morrow children—Thomas, Marianna, and Julia—join them and overtake the conversation. Thomas throws a barb at Julia meant to hurt, and it has the desired effect—she loses her temper and rails at her siblings one by one, before saying to the room, “I know Daddy’s secret” and running outside. Reine-Marie and Gamache follow her, and through her tears, she tells them she’ll probably have to leave first thing in the morning: “They’ll never forgive me, you know.”
The storm that had been building finally hits in the middle of the night with startling force. The electricity goes out, torrential rain pounds at the windows and violent thunder and lightning attack the area. Gamache and his wife help the frazzled staff close some banging windows and doors. The storm eventually moves on, leaving behind cool breezes in its wake, and everyone goes back to bed.
The house wakes to sodden earth and drizzle, and the residents being to settle in for a lazy rainy day. But they hear terrible screams—Bean has been wandering and discovers the attic, filled with old taxidermy from the days when the inn was a hunting and fishing lodge. After Madame Dubois and the Gamaches sooth the frightened child, Irene Finney scolds Bean and makes Bean apologize for trespassing—an apology that Madame Dubois does not want from the frightened little one. After things settle down, they hear more screams—or is it crying?—this time from outside. Bean just wants more attention, Thomas retorts.
Gamache and Pierre walk towards the sound anyway. They find Colleen the gardener, sobbing and frightened, staring at the statue. The huge statue of Charles Morrow had indeed taken that step—and stepped right off the plinth. And onto his daughter, Julia. Crushing her.
Pierre and Gamache are stunned. They lead the shocked gardener inside, where Gamache calls his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir from the Sûreté de Québec, and tells him to come to the Manoir at once. Gamache breaks the tragic news to the family that Julia has been killed. They are disbelieving, even angry with Gamache. Irene Finney insists that she must see her daughter—a request to which Gamache eventually relents later in the day after the Sûreté de Quebec arrive—and she sees with utter horror her first daughter, killed inexplicably by the statue of her late husband. Charles, what have you done?
Beauvoir and Agent Lacoste and the other officers arrive, and secure the site. Julia’s death seems impossible. How could a statue that large could simply fall over, and on to a living person? The coroner begins an investigation, and discovers dirt under the corpse—not mud. Julia was killed before the storm; not during, not after. So the storm could not have knocked down the statue. Gamache understands then that this had to have been murder. Statues just don’t just fall down. Something—someone—made it happen.
As they begin their investigation, some of the Morrows feel fairly certain they know who did it—the shopkeeper and the cleaning lady! They tell one of the local officers, who brings the information immediately to Gamache’s team so they can follow up. After a chuckle, the family is finally told that the shopkeeper, Armand Gamache, is actually the famous head of homicide for the Sûreté de Québec. And he will find out who killed Julia.
Madame Dubois urges this. “What happened here isn’t allowed,” she says. When she and her husband bought the Manoir Bellechasse decades ago, they made a pact with the forest: there would be no more unnatural death, no more killing. There is no more hunting and fishing, birds are fed in the winter, mice are even caught alive and released. She’s seen what happens when creatures turn on each other. And she warns Gamache: “You must find out who did this. Because I know one thing for sure. If a person would kill once, they’d kill again.”
“Chef Veronique loved nature, and found plenty of time to study it, and she knew that sometimes something unnatural crawled out of the womb, out of the woods.”
“Madame Dubois knew, from bitter experience, you can’t always choose, or like, your family.”
1. We are introduced to the Morrow family. What member are you most drawn to?
2. Who are some of the less obvious characters in A Rule Against Murder?
3. Louise Penny’s books are filled with rich sensory experiences—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. With A Rule Against Murder, we get the summertime sensory experiences, in addition to simple everyday ones. What are your favorite sensory passages or sentences in A Rule Against Murder?
4. Louise Penny plays with duality, and in A Rule Against Murder we see the juxtaposition of the unnatural within the natural. How is this illustrated? What are some other themes that you see?
5. Do you agree with Madame Dubois’ opinion about family? (See above under “Favorite Quotes”.) Can there sometimes be a choice to like your family?
6. What are your favorite humorous moments from A Rule Against Murder?