INTRODUCTION BY SARAH MELNYK
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.
Ch. 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.”
Ch. 12-32: The family and staff absorb the news about Julia Martin’s death at the Manoir Bellechasse.
Elliot the young server rages at the news of her death, and threatens to quit. He’s told he can quit his job, but leaving the Manoir is out of the question while they investigate the murder. Pierre the matre d’ tries to show duty and diligence by continuing to show the guests professionalism and respect a trait his father would appreciate, he thinks. The power struggles get worse with Elliot, much to his chagrin. Colleen the gardener, who found the body, seems undone by the event. The shock only aggravates her loneliness in this very beautiful yet remote setting.
Mrs. Finney spooks the entire family by bursting into tears at dinner. Never has there been this display over emotion over any of the Morrow children. Bert Finney is trying to show his support to his wife, but the gestures are swallowed up and unseen by a grieving mother.
Peter seems lost, while Clara feels trapped and miserable. She tries to offer solace to the family, but finds herself either dismissed or the one to be comforted. Peter looks unkempt, messy, and distracted, while Clara looks serious, pressed and buttoned up a complete role reversal.
Marianna acts completely unmoved. She stuffs her face with food during her interview with Beauvoir as if nothing had happened. Thomas and Sandra vie for who gets to be interviewed first and by the most senior officer to boot. Gamache has to remind them that this isn’t a competition.
Bean retreats further into her imagination. She makes a constellation of stars made from half-eaten marshmallow cookies on the Manoir ceiling. In a rare moment of joyous spontaneity, Sandra joins her in the mischievous but fun activity.
Beauvoir is repulsed by this family and the country setting, filled with stinging insects. He is horrified when he learns from his interview with Marianna Morrow that she has purposely kept Bean’s gender a secret from her family, in order to drive her family crazy. He chalks it up to the “insanity of the Anglos.”
In a moment of misery, he stumbles into the kitchen and sees the gigantic Chef Veronique. He is mesmerized by her, and inexplicably drawn to her like a magnet. From that point on, he looks for reasons to be alone with her. He imagines staying at the Manoir forever, if only to be near her.
Agent Lacoste is drawn to the murder site. She can’t imagine how Julia Martin could be killed in such an impossible way. She begins her careful, quiet, meticulous investigating, and orders searches of all of the grounds, and the Manoir rooms.
Reine-Marie is dropped off in Three Pines to stay while Gamache and his team continue their investigation at the Manoir. They interview each family member, the crane company man who mounted the statue, as well as the artist of the statue himself. They gather evidence, including some crumpled notes and a sheaf of letters from Julia’s room.
The early evidence is conflicting and downright inconclusive. It seems unlikely that someone outside of the Manoir could have committed the murder, as the setting is completely remote. To complicate matters, the Morrows say different things about Julia: Mrs. Finney calls her the kindest, most sensitive of all of her children, while Peter characterizes her as “the cruelest, the greediest, of us all.” Thomas says it was a reunion, “a happy time,” and no one wanted to kill her. Beauvoir gazes out the window, silently reminding him of that lie.
Gamache, doing his best to lead the investigation, takes a moment to call his son Daniel. He has a moment of weakness and tells Daniel what he promised he wouldn’t: that he disagrees with the choice of the baby name, and naming him after his father is a mistake. He tells Daniel that life is hard enough without giving a child a name that will lead to abuse or bullying. Daniel is hurt, and the phone call ends badly.
In a painful twist, the Morrows make the connection with Armand Gamache’s name – and his father, who we learn was a national disgrace during World War II. He discouraged Canadian involvement in the war, even after the world knew Hitler had to be stopped. He had gained a following and his name was forever associated with the word “coward.” A word that the Morrows say to Gamache’s face with disdain.
The interview with the crane company reveals nothing helpful or useful – even the crane operator can’t imagine how the huge statue could have fallen. The interview with the sculpture artist doesn’t reveal anything conclusive, except that Bert Finney knew his best friend, Charles Morrow, better than any of his children did.
David, Julia’s ex-husband, now doing time in a correctional facility for his national investment fraud, is also interviewed. David is grief stricken, but he also reveals an interesting secret that defined the hatred that Peter felt for his sister.
After some further digging, Agent Lacoste learns that the Morrows are not actually what, or who, they seem:
Thomas Morrow: called the most successful of the bunch, he is actually the least successful. He has worked at the same firm since college and has not moved up the ladder, nor does he make much money.
Sandra Morrow: makes more than her husband Thomas. She’s doing well at her job, but has hit a glass ceiling. They’ve been living off of the inheritance from Thomas’ father, and it’s about to run out.
Peter Morrow: A prestigious artist, he refused the inheritance money, and he and Clara lived hand to mouth for years. His shows were successful in the past, always selling out, but he hasn’t had a show in a while. And he hated his sister Julia. He secretly played a cruel trick on her that had disastrous effects, causing the family to be forever ruptured.
Marianna Morrow: The interloper sibling who seems a cross between a hippy and a slob is actually by far the most successful of the bunch. She’s a self-made millionaire from a brilliant architect design she came up with in school. Furthermore, her creation was to help the poor – a single family home that was energy efficient and also handsome in design. She travels the world and speaks multiple languages.
Julia Morrow: had claimed on the witness stand during her ex-husband’s trial that she knew nothing about his investment fraud. But she was raised by a shrewd businessman for a father. How true could this be?
Bert Finney: Charles Morrow’s best friend. Everything he told the officers turns out to be true. He was an accountant who worked for his best friend Charles Morrow. But he lied about one thing in his past – that he was in captivity in Burma during World War II, one of the most inhumane, and unsurvivable places to be during the war. Yet he had survived. Who was this man, and why would he choose to be with this impossible family?
The staff, it turns out, is laden also with secrets that begin to come to light. Elliot is from the same neighborhood as Julia and her ex-husband in British Columbia. Elliot and Julia had made some sort of a connection – perhaps a flirtatious one – before she was killed. He was the one who wrote those notes to her. Pierre the matre d’ had worked in a graveyard before taking on the job at the Manoir Bellechasse. He was raised in a wealthy family before his father lost everything in a bad investment when he was quite young. And Chef Veronique turns out to be a Canadian national treasure – a former nun and celebrity chef with a highly popular cooking show back in the day. One day she simply up and left the monastery, and the spotlight, and completely disappeared. Since then she’s been at the great Manoir Bellechasse, where she could live a simpler life, away from scrutiny. Children all over Quebec had adored her – Beauvoir included.
As the Morrows begin to suspect one another, as every family member seems to have motive – most likely the need for money – the Gamaches head to Three Pines to celebrate both Canada Day and their wedding anniversary, July 1. Children play in the sunshine, lamb is roasted, bees hover over spilled Coke, and for a while, the Gamaches revel in the summertime celebration. It is during this visit that Gamache suddenly puts a few crucial pieces of information together. Reine-Marie sees the look on her husband’s face, and knows he is close to solving the murder.
Gamache races back to the Manoir, only to discover that Elliot is missing. Search parties begin looking for him, and in the midst of the confusion, Gamache tries to hunt down some final pieces of information with a couple of phone calls. But he is almost too late – the murderer has struck again, this time kidnapping Bean. In a heart-stopping climax, Gamache, the murderer, and Bean are at the top of the steep copper roof of the Manoir. One or all of them might not leave with their life.
The Morrows, each and every one of them watching with horror from the safety of the ground, now understand who killed their daughter, their sister. It all pointed back to Julia’s husband. The murderer took Julia’s life in a blind moment of rage, for everything he and his family lost in one of David’s early investment failures. And for the money and privilege she represented.
Gamache barely manages to save Bean’s life and his own. They are all brought in to safety, and the murderer, exhausted, confesses. The family and the staff discuss the clues, and the Morrow secrets are now out in the open. As old wounds are discussed, some amount of understanding and healing begins to seep in to this family, who have for so long misunderstood one another, as well as their father’s intentions.
Peter and Clara leave the Manoir, and Peter has a new understanding of his father. Bean seems to be doing fine despite the scare, and the Gamaches feel certain that this wonderful yet strange child will thrive. We learn a bit more about the Morrows, their pain, and how Bert Finney could survive such horror during the war. Gamache and Daniel make peace, and Armand and Reine-Marie look forward to the day they will meet their grandchild.
“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.”
“The Canadian wilderness didn’t give up her territory or her dead easily.”
“You can’t get milk from a hardware store.”
Julia Martin was killed in a moment of passion and rage. One of the commentators in Week One of the re-read discussion wisely made the point that A Rule Against Murder is just as much about fathers and sons as it is about family, and it’s true – we see the sons still existing in the long shadows of their fathers. The murderer tried to live a life his father could respect, but in the end, he murdered to avenge his failures. Fathers, alive or dead, shape us all, A Rule Against Murder says. But in Gamache’s case, he finds moments to choose the length of the shadow. To choose its shape.
Nothing was as it seemed with the Morrows – their successes, their hostilities, even their pain. Louise Penny shows how disfunction was introduced into the family, and given an environment to flourish. Irene Finney was beset with a physically painful disease unbeknownst to her children which made touch impossible, and it made her seem remote and unloving. Charles Morrow withheld his wealth from his children, and tried to instill a spirit of gamesmanship and risk so they could learn to become self-reliant. Instead it backfired, and created an atmosphere of intense competition between the siblings, and the life-long bruises began. Even with Bert Finney, we learn that he didn’t marry Irene for her vast fortune, but simply because he loved her his entire life.
A Rule Against Murder, also known as The Murder Stone, was published in the U.S. in January 2009. It is a layered, sensory-filled murder mystery in one of its most classic forms. The symbolism and subtexts alone are fascinating and plentiful. But A Rule Against Murder, to me, also represented prescient timing: the Bernie Madoff scandal had just broken, and Julia and David Martin represented the kind of devastating damage that can be done when avarice, an absence of ethics, and opportunity form a perfect storm. It’s not often a fiction publication can tie into breaking headline news, let alone one of the top news stories of the decade. It was impossible at the time to flout it too much when pitching, as a publicist never wants to point too much to a single motive when pitching mysteries. But five years later, it’s fun to think about, and remember the context when this extraordinary book came into the world.
Thank you so much for joining me in re-reading A Rule Against Murder. I look forward to seeing you on the discussion boards!
- We are introduced to the Morrow family. What member are you most drawn to?
- Who are some of the less obvious characters in A Rule Against Murder?
- 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?
- 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?
- Do you agree with Madame Dubois’ opinion about family? (See above under “Favorite Quotes”.) Can there sometimes be a choice to like your family?
- What are your favorite humorous moments from A Rule Against Murder?