A Trick of the Light, Part 1

A Trick of the Light, Part 1


We all love those scenes where Gamache meets a new officer of the Sûreté and instead of overawing them he shows kindness and curiosity. It was like this for me when I met Louise Penny, the Chief Inspector of our publishing adventures together in Canada.

We at Raincoast had just signed on to help with book promotion in Canada, it was the middle of June and A Trick of the Light was publishing in August. Not much time.

I spoke briefly with Louise but confessed that I could not talk for long as I was about to go to a Father’s Day Tea at my son’s preschool. When we spoke again, the first thing she asked about wasn’t our plans to promote her, but my son and our Tea. She asked about all the children, about the dads and most importantly about the children whose dads could not attend—how did the those kids feel? It was a Gamache-like exhibition of thoughtful perception. This time we had a lengthy telephone call—we did have lots of plans to help promote Louise and I can talk about my son for a long, long time. But like that junior officer of the Sûreté, now felt I was part of something special.

That Christmas Louise sent a paint-by-numbers kit. And my son said; “Daddy, we can use this to make another world.” To my ears it sounded like something that Clara’s character would say, and like Clara would have, we have kept the paintbrush from the paint set—a lovely gift given by a remarkable woman, who knows so very much about the nature of true friendship. Someday my son will read the Gamache Series and understand even better.

Recap (Chapters 1-9)

“Oh, no, no, no thought Clara Morrow as she walked towards the closed doors.” This is how Louise Penny begins A Trick of the Light.

Clara is about to walk through the door of the ultra-chic, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal for her vernissage, a private party where artists celebrate with friends, clients, patrons and even critics before their exhibitions open to the public. Reputations and egos are glossed not paintings. Despite the party being given for her, Clara feels nothing but dread. She has achieved her dream of a solo show at the “MAC”, but what if the critics and gallery owners hate her work?

Clara falls to the ground and it is Olivier Brulé, not her husband Peter, who gets down on the floor beside her “whether it’s on your knees or on your feet, you’re going through that door. It might as well be on your feet.” And so she gets up and we go through the door and into the novel.

The novel then moves to the Gamache family, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his beloved wife Reine-Marie are sitting in their Outremont apartment reading the L’Observateur and La Presse respectively. They and their daughter, Annie, are awaiting her huband, David’s arrival.

But Armand’s magazine reading is really just a stalling tactic his wife points out. He seems reluctant to rejoin his friends of Three Pines at the vernissage and to face Olivier to whom he has already apologized for his part in his Olivier’s wrongful conviction.

The real emotional center to the chapter, in my opinion, lies in the conversation between Jean Guy Beauvoir, Armand’s number two, and Gamache’s daughter, Annie, as they wait. Beauvoir thinks back to his time in hospital, after the disastrous factory raid described in Bury Your Dead , when it was Annie, not his now ex-wife Enid, who affirmed his will to live. “[Annie] had placed her hand in his and it had changed everything . . . this hand was large and certain and warm. And it invited him back.”

Jean Guy and Annie talk about the difficulty of true forgiveness and why Olivier has not forgiven Gamache.

Chapter two returns to the vernissage, beyond Clara’s crises at the door and we now eavesdrop on the reactions to Clara’s paintings from artists, critics and friends.

Armand and the art dealer, Francois Marois, are the most observant of the actual paintings on the wall and in particular the centerpiece, Clara’s portrait of Ruth Zardo as the aged Virgin Mary that we have come to know from previous books.

“Clara’s portrait wasn’t simply of an angry old woman. She had in fact painted the Virgin Mary. Elderly. Abandoned by a world weary and wary of miracles. A world too busy to notice the stone rolled back.”

Then finally at the end of the scene, with Gamache and Marois still deep in conversation the description is completed:

“But there was something else. A vague suggestion in those weary eyes. Not even seen really. More a promise. A rumour in the distance.

Amid all the brush strokes, all the elements all the color and nuance in the portrait, it came down to one tiny detail. A single white dot.

In her eyes.

Clara Morrow had pained the moment despair became hope.”

Or did she? On this question so much of the novel will pivot on many different levels.

“Maybe it isn’t hope at all” said Marois, “but merely a trick of the light.”

The major themes of are all now in place; the risks entailed by creating art, the judgement and responsibilities of the critic, what it takes to change emotionally, what it is to offer and accept forgiveness from others and finally what role can hope play in a world without easy faith. All this before the murder happens.

But we readers don’t have to wait long. After the vernissage Clara and her guests, both friends and members of the art world (not the same groups) repaired to Three Pines, the village on no map, to continue celebrating—the party goes well into the night. This is Quebec after all.

The next morning Clara is up early awaiting the return of Olivier and Peter who have driven off to pick up newspapers so she can read the critics’ verdicts. Olivier and Peter arrive with papers in hand; all the major papers have reviewed the show: The New York Times, The Times of London, The Globe & Mail and others. Clara wants to hold print editions “because I wanted to feel the newspaper in my hands. I wanted to read my reviews the same way I read reviews of all the artists I love. Holding the paper. Smelling it. Turning the pages.”

But the papers will remain untouched by Clara for most of the day. It is at this moment, Olivier and Peter and discover a body in Clara’s garden; “the red shoes just poking out from behind the flower bed.” The victim, dressed in an equally bright red dress had died quickly; someone had snapped her neck, around midnight.

Gamache, Beauvoir and Agent Lacoste who takes a bigger role in this investigation (much to the initial discomfort of Beauvoir) are back on the case.

No one had recognized the victim from the vernissage or from the after party at Three Pines. But she is soon identified as Lillian Dyson which comes as a terrible shock to Clara.

The victim had been best friends with Clara up until art school, but Lillian had turned on Clara. Lillian had savaged her in a student review, and their friendship ended. Clara never discovered that Peter played a role in all of this.

Later, as an art critic for La Presse, Lillian Dyson had gone after other artists too. She had penned a memorable blurb; “He’s a natural, producing art like it’s a bodily function” that lived on even though no one could now remember the artist at whom the barb had been aimed. Then Lillian left Montreal for New York.

Why would someone murder a now obscure art critic in Clara’s garden the night of her triumph? Who was so damaged by this now-dead acerbic critic that they would kill? The homicide team begins to interview and re-interview the gallery owners, patrons, artists and friends who attended the vernissage and the party at Three Pines, looking for motives and intent and lies and inconsistencies.

A major piece of evidence is discovered while Clara and her friends perform a smudge ceremony in Clara’s garden—they discover something the police had missed. A beginners chip from Alcoholics Anonymous, with the famous serenity poem imprinted on the back is found. Was it dropped by the murder or by the victim?

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Armand and Beauvoir must notify Lillian Dyson’s parents in Montreal and they go there to also explore more of the victim’s life. Meanwhile, Peter and Clara confront the awful truth that their marriage is also possibly dead, killed by the fact that Peter cannot accept the fact that his wife, and not he, will be the art star.

On the drive to Montreal, Gamache tries to speak with Beauvoir about his stalled recovery from the shooting in the factory and then about the end of his marriage to Enid. Beauvoir is about to tell Armand his true feelings for Annie, the woman he actually loves, but he can’t. “He opened his mouth , the words just hovering there, just opening. As though a stone had rolled back and these miraculous words were about to emerge into the daylight.” It is the same image, the stone and the tomb – referred to when describing Clara’s painting of the aged Virgin Mary and the cross above Mt. Royal.

Gamache and Beauvoir arrive at the apartment of the Lillian’s aged parents, pensioners who clearly adore their only daughter. For me this is one of the most deeply moving scenes. The description of the parents’ grief is so direct yet so contained. As she goes through the social niceties of pouring tea for her guests, Madame Dyson refers to her husband as Papa, “Would she still call him ‘Papa’ after today, Beauvoir wondered. Or was that the very last time? Would it be too painful?” That must of have been what Lillian called them”. And when they are finally told the news of the murder of their daughter; “Madame and Monsieur Dyson crossed over to continent where grieving parents lived. It looked the same as the rest of the world but it wasn’t.”

Before the Dysons descend into complete shock, Gamache and Beauvoir try to glean as much information as they can. The Dysons remember the youthful conflict between Clara and Lillian but from the other side- it was Clara who stole the ideas and confidence of Lillian and it was Clara who caused the estrangement. Their Lillian was a loving daughter who did not drink—she had returned to Montreal eight months prior and was working on making a clean start, on making amends.

Had Lillian been tricked into going to Three Pines only to meet her death? Gamache wonders. The next stop will be Lillian’s apartment. Up until now the investigation as focused on the art world, now Gamache and the squad must expand their search into another world; the half secret world of drinking and addiction . We will enter this world in part 2.

Favourite Quote

“The skyline of Montreal was looming in the foreground now across the river. And Mount Royal rose in the middle of the city. The huge cross on top of the mountain was invisible now, but every night it sprang to life, lit as beacon to a population that no longer believed in the church, but believed in family and friends, culture and humanity.

The cross didn’t seem to care. It glowed just as bright.”

I love this passage for several reasons.

1. I spent a January night in a hotel near the Biblioteque Nationale during a snowstorm with the old city to my left and the glowing cross on the Mount to my right. It is ethereal. It really does glow. Especially during a blizzard.

2. The ongoing Reread discussion for Bury Your Dead has talked a lot about Canadian and Quebecois history. What Louise says in four lines captures for me the essence of the Quiet Revolution—an event that completely transformed Quebec.

3. The cross didn’t seem to care. It glowed just as bright.” Is religion obsolete or merely obedient to a different conception of time and space than the secular world? This is subtle writing.

Discussion Questions

1. How do you visualize Clara’s portrait of the Virgin Mary? Which artist’s styles come to mind for you? And why?

2. The picture of Clara and Peter’s marriage is so honest. We do compete with our spouses and think we are being supportive when we are not. Clara confronts Peter: “you don’t even like my work.” What would you say in this situation? Is this a double- bind? Peter does have different artistic tastes than Clara, but can he dislike her art and still love his wife?

3. On the drive to Montreal Beauvoir asks “what would you have done sir? If you were married to someone else when you met Madame Gamache?” Do we all have a true love and what boundaries, if any, we should place around our search for that person?

4. In a novel that is about many things including the power of media, why do you think there is no mention of any fictional TV, radio or print coverage of the murder of Lillian Dyson? Louise Penny was a prominent journalist before she became a novelist. Why this omission of media coverage in the story?

5. The critic may wield great power in the art world, but do critics influence your reading decisions? Did you discover Louise Penny from a review or from somewhere else?

6. Louise takes great care to call out specific newspapers and magazines thoughout the novel. Do you notice what characters are reading and what does it tell us about them?

7. Louise describes grieving parents crossing over to another continent from which they won’t return. Does this deny the possibility of hope?

Discussion on “A Trick of the Light, Part 1”

I loved the nuances in this book. My favorite quote had to do with Gabri’s B & B, being so cozy, kind of like grandmas house. Now I have to go back and find it. I liked the development of Jean Guy. I think Gamache knows something is wrong, but cannot see it in the beginning and Myrna’s advice sets him in the wrong direction. The scene between Clara and Peter was hear wrenching to read. he really is trying. These books have so much to offer. I will have o go back and re-read as time continues.

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The visit to Dyson’s parents is the best-written scene of any of the Gamache books. It’s great how the switch from daily life to complete agony is captured and reflected. Whenever I hear of someone’s child passing away (at ANY age), I think about one specific line: “Would she still call him ‘Papa”, or would that be the very last time?”

It’s heat-wrenching, isn’t it? Louise Penny’s talent is so large, yet unassuming, and we can tend to forget it as the story goes along. Passages like this, that tear at your heart, seem to come from within, rather than the writing – but clearly, it’s all Louise!

1.This may sound odd to many, but my thoughts went to Lucien Freud as the comparison painter. His bright colours and harsh faces at first repel – but Clara’s would instantly be kinder, gentler, naturally, since we know about the glint of white in the woman’s eye.
2.Peter needs to get over it or get gone. I am tired of his whiny immature reactions to so many things. He did unspeakable things re his sister when younger as well. Feh! On another topic, Beauvoir makes me laugh out loud when commenting on the Anglaises.
5. Critics are definitely an influence on tickets sales in the theatre, so why not in other areas of the arts? People love to say that they don’t pay attention to the critics but they DO! I often say I go to see a play because I want to, no matter what critics write, but those in theatre all see the difference in ticket sales re good versus bad reviews so who IS IT paying attention to the critics? Hmm?
6. Yes, personality judgments can, and are, made by what people are seen reading! Think about your instant reaction to a person reading The Enquirer. Now, The New Yorker.
7. No, it’s not that grieving parents can never return from that island, but death of a child(no matter what age) changes the width of hope’s horizons. As my mother has said, it tips the universe out of order. An Asian definition of happiness is that ” grandfather dies, father dies, son dies “.
I found Louis Penny when a magazine of book reviews described “How the Light Gets In” and my eye was caught by the Leonard Cohen lyrics. When I read the brief description and saw that it was Quebec and the Eastern Townships (where I spent a great deal of time) I immediately decided to start buying them and reading them in order. All caught up and ready to read the latest!!

In regard to reviews of books, I sometimes pay attention to them but most of the time I listen to friends or pick up things that appeal to me. I started reading Louise Penny on the advice of the librarians at the Fraser Hickson here in Montreal. They always have good suggestions..especially this time!

Thankfully, a review led me to Louise Penny. She received a full-page must-read recommendation from People Magazine in 2009. I was intrigued with her Eastern Townships link. My husband and I checked out her website and he entered a contest to win The Brutal Telling as a Christmas gift for me. He won!

Louise included a lovely Unicef Christmas card (with three pines, of course!), a thoughtful inscription, and made sure the parcel arrived before the holidays with a different return address in case I got to the mailbox first.

How like Louise Penny to want a reader’s gift to his wife to be just right! Such grace and kindness. We have been fans ever since and are enjoying the series re-read, as well as her blog and newsletters.

It was the recommendation of friends that led me to Louise Penny. I had been reading and raving about another author and his series of police procedurals that take place in Yorkshire, England. When my friends told me Louise Penny’s books take place in Quebec, mostly the Eastern Townships, I was delighted. When I came to Canada many years ago, it was in the E.T. that I settled. So there’s a feeling of home for me in her books. Armand Gamache reminds me of a beloved uncle. After I read the first book, I was hooked!

Book reviews form one of the ways that I acquire new books, but there are so many others. Right now I belong to four book groups, so that certainly affects what I am reading. Some book group books have been work I would never have picked up on my own, but I am so glad I read them. I just read a book recommended highly by my 13 year old granddaughter — and loved it.
I always notice what people are reading — people in Louise’s books as well as people on planes, trains, in coffee shops, etc. I’m sure they think I am terribly nosy but occasionally I have met some of the nicest people and had amazing conversations.
To the Canadians who have commented above on the self -absorption of Americans, oh yes, we are, generally, and I do apologize. I wish I knew how to fix that. I know so many Americans who are afraid to venture out of their tiny comfort zones — we could do another whole conversation on that topic.
Thanks, Louise, for expanding our horizons into Quebec and beyond.

How do you visualize Clara’s portrait of the Virgin Mary? Which artist’s styles come to mind for you? And why?

I think of Rembrandt – the dark clothing, simple backgrounds, and tender portraits of flawed human beings – even when his subject is Biblical. The focus is on the face, the soul, usually highlighted by a light source – and yes, chiaroscuro plays an important part in his art. This self-portrait is an example of what I’m thinking of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-portraits_by_Rembrandt#mediaviewer/File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Penny, that’s a very intriguing insight about Olivier and his possible seeing the hermit as someone HE could turn into in the future.
I do have some problem with his refusal to forgive Gamache for arresting him for the hermit’s death. While it’s true Gamache had him arrested, Armand did take some effort to have the charge lowered to manslaughter rather than murder, AND he assigned Jean-Guy to look into the case further. Let’s not forget, it was Olivier’s greed, and continual lying, that got him into trouble.
I do not know why I suddenly feel compelled to defend Peter, of all people. Perhaps it is just the instinct in me for playing devils’ advocate, but reading the posts where Olivier was being compared to Peter made me want to defend Peter. Very confusing! I usually really like Olivier and Peter–not so much so. I suspect I will like him even less in the new book.
I can hardly believe I am about to write this, but even though Peter sometimes comes across as cold, I think he is basically honest. He’s even honest enough with himself to see his envy of Clara as a problem. I can’t quite remember which book it was in, but there was one place where he thought he had laid the envy to rest. Well, enough of this shilly-shallying. Will go on to discuss another question:
5. The critic may wield great power in the art world, but do critics influence your reading decisions? Did you discover Louise Penny from a review or from somewhere else?
I have to admit critics do sometimes influence my reading decisions. I must add the caveat that it very much depends on the reviewer and the way that the book is reviewed. If it’s by someone I recognize, like Lesa Holstine, I would take her recommendation seriously. Some reviews on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble might be influential as well, depending on how well the person writes, and explains the reasons behind the rating. I do not like to read reviews that basically regurgitate the plot– it greatly reduces my need to read the book for myself. If a person is clearly biased, that figures into my calculations as well.
For the second part of the question, I was given a copy of A Fatal Grace by a friend. I absolutely fell in love with the village of Three Pines, the villagers(except for the horrible CC Poitiers, of course) and Gamache and his crew. After that I went to the beginning book, Still Life, and since then, have read all the other books in the series to date.

Intelligent presentation and good questions. As to the ‘why no reporters, journalists and the like on the scene’ I would say that’s probably just because Louise Penny did not need them to tell her story. Few novelists (and I bet hardly any interesting ones) are out for verisimilitude. If reporters and what they can do to advance the plot or cast light on the story are important, they’ll be there. They are not important to the way Ms. Penny wants to tell this story.
I continue to be interested in how little sympathy I have for Peter and how much I have for Olivier. Why IS that? I just feel as if Peter is missing something essential from his soul, and Olivier has a human flaw that he didn’t successfully deal with for a moment. I’m still mulling over The Brutal Telling and re-re-re-re-reading it. It has finally occurred to me that the murdered man is a possible ‘outcome’ for Olivier, a mirror image, a ‘who I could turn into if I don’t watch out’. This encounter with the other and its invitation to disaster, is very powerful. Sorry for harking back, but I’m still focused THERE.

Wow, that made me think! The hermit as a “possible outcome” for Peter, who Peter could have become. My mouth dropped open. I not only think you have a point, I think Olivier recognised that at some level, not consciously, but I think it influenced how he treated the hermit. Very scary!

Oh, that is good! Olivier really could (and I hope he will) take this to heart! As to why you like Olivier better than Peter – I think it has to do with warmth and cold. To me, Peter is cold, while Olivier, though he loves “things”, also loves people and is friendly and outgoing.

I just wanted to mention one of my favorite quotes: Armand Gamache knew no good ever came from putting up walls. What people mistook for safety was in fact captivity. And few things thrived in captivity.

I just love this. So many times people close themselves off and put up walls and end up being lonely and shriveling up. They also lose out and being a blessing and help to others. They don’t realize they hold themselves captives.

BTW, I LOVE everyone’s comments and insights! Thank you!

I love that quote too. Those who put up walls to protect themselves also cut themselves off from access to the help they need. We can see Jean Guy doing this. He’s clearly not well, but not ready to face it, so it’s easier to put up a wall. However, it doesn’t fool Armand. I keep hoping Jean Guy will become healed and whole in all ways, not just physically.

Jane F. and Julie — Thanks for answering my question and sharing your insight. It helped.

#5. Critics. I love to read book reviews. I read a review of the second book, A Fatal Grace, in the San Diego Union and at the end of the enthusiastic review the critic suggested reading Penny’s fine first book before the new one. I immediately ordered a used paperback copy of Still Life. I loved it and ordered the new one before finishing Still Life. I’ve been hooked ever since and have recommended her books to many people, with happy results.

#1: I can still recall a marriage counselor asking–his very first question–“Do you see competition in your marriage?” Simultaneously, I said “yes” as my ex- said “no.” Of course there is competition, but nothing as deep and complex as two people who have the same goal as Peter and Clara, to be artists and recognized as good or great artists. Trouble with a capital “T” as the song goes…

I was puzzled by the viewers’ conclusion that Ruth’s painting was a presentation of Mary’s grief/moment of hope. There seemed to be no other interpretation (or am I forgetting?) and that this conclusion would be a hard one at which to arrive. I, too, see Peter as a vampire and wonder how Clara could have virtually venerated him as she did prior to this. I picture Gamache as a younger Michael Gambon. And I’m very eager to get more information on Ruth. She’s referred to as Mrs. Zardo. Was she married or is Gamache using “Madame” as the French do to indicate an older woman?

Ruth was married and was described in an earlier book as a widow who has treasures in her basement that she sometimes sells as being a famous poet doesn’t bring much wealth.


Hmmm – what a nice thought – that there is one soul that’s meant for you, and you alone. However, I’m afraid I don’t believe in this theory. I think that there are many people in the world that would be wonderful mates for each person – and the lucky ones find each other, and recognize each other. But if one is missed – there IS another one to be found. Not quite like buses (another one will come along in a minute), but you haven’t missed your only chance at happiness. I think if your heart is open and you love wholeheartedly, you will find love and happiness.


I have, in my ignorance, only really noticed that most people seem to be reading French-language magazines and newspapers (which is, of course, natural). But they are unfamiliar to me, so I am not really able to glean much from their names. I do, however, note that the English-speaking people don’t seem to read English media exclusively, and vice-versa for the Francophones. Our literary paradise is populated with truly bilingual people, and I have noticed this. How interesting, and strange, perhaps, to slip into another language so effortlessly. I’ve often wondered if most of the conversations in the books are meant to be conducted in French or English. When Peter and Clara are at home alone, surely, they speak English to each other. And Olivier and Gabri surely speak French to one another. But when the whole group gets together? Is it an amalgamation of both? When Louise begins a conversation with one or two French words – “What can I get for you, Patron?” – is that to clue us in that the whole conversation is in French?

I think you are on to something here. Knowing a little about the Montreal and Townships regions you can assume many of the characters are switching back and forth between English and French and as you say, sometimes an amalgamation. Would that we were all as bilingual or even multilingual.

How delightful to be able to slip easily from one language to another. I think I am a little envious.


I think that Beauvoir’s love for Annie is an out-cropping of his love for Armand, and yet, I also think it’s his first foray into a mature kind of love that recognizes another’s soul, rather than just a pretty face. It makes sense that a man he loved as a father could have a child he would love as an equal. I still have my hopes for this union – and it’s nice to see it develop from what is almost a schoolboy crush at this stage…

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