LOUISE PENNY’S

Series Re-Read: A Trick of the Light

INTRODUCTION BY JAMIE BROADHURST

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

Ch. 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.

Ch. 10-end: A diptych is art pieces designed to be displayed together where the meaning of one artwork is deepened by reference to its pair. The first half of A Trick of the Light opens with Clara Morrow’s triumphant vernissage and the electric reaction to her portrait of poet Ruth Zardo as the aged Virgin Mary. This is the painting that captivates Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and over which the international press raves. In the second half of the novel, we discover A Trick of the Light is really a diptych—it is a book about more than one triumphant piece of art and more than one newly discovered artist.

In part 1 we read about the murder of a now obscure former art critic for La Presse (a Montreal daily), Lillian Dyson, whose body is discovered the morning after Clara Morrow’s big celebration. Lillian’s body is found lying in Clara’s garden in Three Pines. The investigation soon turns upon motive and evidence—everyone in Quebec art circles remembers Lillian’s barb: “He’s a natural, producing art like it’s a bodily function” but no one can remember who the “he” refers to in the infamous take-down. An Alcoholics Anonymous beginners chip is found near the body. Was Lillian killed for authoring a savage review and will the murderer be found enmeshed somewhere in the world of AA?

While Agent Lacoste and her team comb the archives of La Presse to track down the elusive review, Gamache and his second in command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir head to the shabby apartment of Lillian Dyson. What they find there is a stash of artwork that is a revelation to Gamache:

“Her paintings were lush and bold. Cityscapes, Montreal, made to look and feel like forest. The buildings were tall and wonky, like strong tress growing this way and that. Adjusting to nature, rather than the other way around.”

And the masterpiece in the making was not of the aged Virgin Mary but a decrepit church:

“It was unfinished. It showed a church, in bright red, almost as though it was on fire. But it wasn’t. It simply glowed. And beside it swirled roads like rivers and people like reeds. No other artist he knew was painting in this style. It was as if Lillian Dyson had invented a whole new art movement.”

Soon Gamache confirms what he already suspects, that the work of an undiscovered genius may be far more valuable to the astute collector or gallery owner. The art dealer, Denis Fortin, explains:

“‘Alive she would produce more art for the gallery to sell, and presumably for more and more money. But dead?

‘The fewer paintings the better. A bidding war would ignite and the prices…’

Fortin looked to the heavens.”

In Lillian’s apartment Gamache and Beauvoir find Lillian’s copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and her meeting list. Gamache and Beauvoir will head to the Sunday night meeting—held in the same church that was the subje ct of Lillian’s unknown masterpiece. Lillian had underlined a passage in her AA book: “The alcoholic is like a tornado, roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead.” We are about to enter the tornado.

So it might seem incongruous that the scene is set up through humour. Gamache meets Bob at the door: “‘I am not actually an alcoholic,’ says Gamache.

Bob looked at him with amusement: ‘Of course you aren’t.’”

Although I haven’t noted it earlier, humour glimmers in all of Louise’s books. Employing a deadpan delivery (the same way she talks in person) she wields humour in her writing to underscore some of the most serious topics.

At the AA meeting, we meet a second set of characters who will propel the story to its final conclusion: Suzanne, Lillian’s sponsor at AA, who knows Lillian’s secrets but seems reluctant to tell; Chief Justice Thierry Pinneault, who chairs the meeting—he will struggle throughout the rest of the novel to be both loyal to his fellow AA members and to uphold the course of justice; and Brian, who has killed a young child while driving drunk. He confesses: “Do you know what finally brought me to my knees? I wish I could say it was guilt, a conscience, but it wasn’t. It was loneliness.”

All three AA members find their way to Three Pines. We learn that the 12-step recovery program includes a ninth step—asking for forgiveness—and that in the final months of her life Lillian confronted those she had hurt and attempted to make amends. “Make direct amends to such people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” But has Lillian been too rushed and too careless? Has she caused injury?

Agent Lacoste and her team return to Three Pines. They inform Gamache they’ve tracked down Lillian Dyson’s famous blurb and a few more bon mots. We are close to the solving the case now as well as seeing more of the character’s private lives unfold.

Gamache wades deeper into the murk surrounding the video of the disastrous factory shooting. How was it filmed and how did it leak to the public where it became an internet sensation? Beauvoir and Gamache confront one another: Gamache trying to make his colleague seek more help to recover and Beauvoir struggling to be completely honest to his patron, to forgive Gamache, and to reach out to Annie. Clara and Peter’s marriage takes a decisive turn, the ramifications of which will only become clear in future books.

The final section begins with an invitation for Gamache, Beauvoir and Agent Lacoste to attend a dinner party hosted by Clara. No one knows that this is where Gamache will confront the murderer. It will be very relaxed says Clara, “en famille.”

And then in a novel where English and French words have flowed interchangeably Louise as writer comments for the first time about the use of French word.

“Gamache smiled at the French phrase. It was one [his wife] Reine-Marie often used. It meant ‘come as you are”, but it meant more than that. She didn’t use it for every relaxed occasion and with every guest. It was reserved for special guests, who are considered family. It was a particular position, a compliment. An intimacy offered.”

The Eastern Townships is a part of Quebec where French and English language intermingle—someone might start a sentence in French and finish in English. Some people say they think in both languages. So when Louise calls attention to en famille and its full meaning the phrase takes on extra import.

I think it conveys to the reader that however this murder mystery ends, the bonds between the characters we have come to know so well over seven books will continue to change and deepen, but most importantly they will endure en famille in the books to follow. Gamache has been offered a permanent place in Three Pines.

FAVORITE 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Suzanne’s description of why she let go of her hatred for Lillian:

“I’d held on to that hurt, coddled it fed it grew it. Until it had all but consumed me. But finally I wanted something even more than I wanted my pain.”

The epilogue provides a searing example of almost superhuman forgiveness, when Chief Justice Pinneault explains the true nature of his bond with the skinhead Brian, but when I read the words of Suzanne in the chapter prior, the psychology of her forgiveness seems more relatable and the mechanism more universal. It also sounded familiar.

I met a couple who had gone on a camping trip with their daughter. On a given day, both parents thought the other was taking care of the girl and she drowned. In the aftermath the couple stayed together but they both blamed each other bitterly until they accepted that anger and blame was completely futile. It took years. They couldn’t choose to forgive; they couldn’t will it—it had to come on its own terms. They told me this at the funeral of another child who had drowned and they hoped for the same outcome for the other grieving parents—that they could eventually surrender their mutual sorrow and feelings of guilt. Louise’s quote contains the same realism about sadness, hope and forgiveness. I suspect Louise Penny’s hope comes from hard-won personal experience.

CONCLUSION

I started my re-read with a personal anecdote about the first time I spoke with Louise and how she was so kind during our initial phone call. On that call I told her that her books have always appealed to me as love letters to Quebec and the Quebecois. I spent my summers in Quebec as a child and still have family there. I don’t get to travel to Quebec as often I would like, but I go there again and again when I reread Louise Penny. “This little village produced bodies and gourmet meals in equal measure,” says Beauvoir. And much more.

Does a Canadian read Louise Penny differently than someone else? Does a Swede read Henning Mankell differently than an international reader? Perhaps not, but you notice things and hear tone differently.

It is said that national literatures often reveals deeper themes, myths if you will. The myth of the United States is ‘The Last Frontier’ and rugged individualism, the myth of the United Kingdom is the island nation. The myth for Canada is survival in the wilderness. Canadians first came together in forts, then villages, and then cities because the wilderness beyond is so powerful and so deadly, and we are so vulnerable if we remain alone.

When Louise Penny writes of Three Pines as a refuge she is describing something very deep within the Quebecois and the Canadian imagination—not just a cozy village, but more a respite from what lies beyond it.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Louise Penny says Three Pines is a state of mind as much as a place. Could Three Pines and its characters exist outside of Quebec?
  1. “Everyone lies. . . . Everyone hides things says Gamache.” What has he hid and how has he lied?
  1. A Supreme Court Justice of Canada has recently been quoted as saying she is reading Louise Penny. What do you think she will make of Chief Justice Pinneault?
  1. “I wish I could say it was guilt, a conscience, but it wasn’t. It was loneliness.” Brian says he quit drinking not because of conscience but because of loneliness. What is the connection between addiction and loneliness?
  1. “People only remember bad reviews” says the artist Normand. Do you think this is true?
  1. A fan wrote in to say she had named her son Armand after Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. “I feel that the Chief Inspector embodies all of the characteristics I would love to see in my son—intelligence, integrity, kindness, loyalty, compassion, and empathy, although he is not above admitting when he is wrong and is flawed in ways that make him all too human and very intriguing to follow through all of the novels.” Is there a character that you would name a child after?
  1. Poetry is used far more than mere ornament in A Trick of the Light. Characters reflect on the lines of Margaret Atwood, Stevie Smith and others throughout the book. What are your favorite lines and why?
  1. How do you visualize Clara’s portrait of the Virgin Mary? Which artist’s styles come to mind for you? And why?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. Louise describes grieving parents crossing over to another continent from which they won’t return. Does this deny the possibility of hope?

A Trick of the Light, Part 2

A diptych is art pieces designed to be displayed together where the meaning of one artwork is deepened by reference to its pair. The first half of A Trick of the Light opens with Clara Morrow’s triumphant vernissage and the electric reaction to her portrait of poet Ruth Zardo as the aged Virgin Mary. This is the painting that captivates Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and over which the international press raves. In the second half of the novel, we discover A Trick of the Light is really a diptych—it is a book about more than one triumphant piece of art and more than one newly discovered artist.


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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.


READ FULL POST

AuthorJAMIE BROADHURST is VP of Marketing at Raincoast, an award winning, Canadian-owned book wholesale and distribution company based in Vancouver, BC.
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