‘A World of Curiosities’ by Louise Penny is a brilliant and gripping mystery with many twists

Louise Penny’s latest entry in her Chief Inspector Gamache series is brilliant and addictive. While it begins slowly as Penny is creating the backstory, that narrative becomes all-important later in the novel when the action and the connections are so fast and furious that it’s almost impossible to put the book down. We feel compelled to keep reading to see what clues will be uncovered next, who will die or be in danger, and what connection to the past an item or person has that we are just learning about.

Here, in the pages of the eighteenth book in the series, we read about how Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir originally met over a murder. That case is important because the siblings involved in that long-ago violence are now in Gamache’s hometown, the idyllic village of Three Pines with its closely-knit community. We don’t know how much or how little those siblings are responsible for the strange happenings in the village. Those who have read previous novels in the series are familiar with the characters who live in Three Pines, but courtesy of Penny’s skills, even those new to the series will quickly become familiar with the quirky personalities of those who live in there. When Myrna, the bookstore owner and retired psychologist, is made aware of an extra space in her attic, the whole community is intrigued.

As long-time fans of Penny’s writing know, we expect elegance in the narrative, and we certainly are not disappointed. For example, as Myrna ponders the word “temple” that refers to a part of our head, she thinks that it was named by a man—someone who thought that “the brain was the temple where knowledge was housed.” Then Penny writes, “But she knew, as did her companions, as did the dogs, and Gracie, trotting beside them, that anything worth knowing was kept in the heart.” The writing is filled with reflection and deep truths about life and—especially—women. Ruth’s poetry is the vehicle Penny uses to share many of those often unpleasant life truths.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the tragic reality of misogyny and how it led to one of the worst tragedies in Canadian history, the Montreal Massacre. This important event in the story is a real event, a true tragedy, that occurred in Montreal on December 6, 1989, when a man with a semi-automatic rifle went into a packed classroom at the Polytechnique engineering school, separated the 50-some men from the women and told the men to leave. He then went on a shooting spree, killing all the women he could find. The police established a perimeter and didn’t enter the building until the gunman shot himself. This horrific event led to the eventual tightening of gun laws thanks to the persistent campaigning of Canadian women who were tired of being treated as lesser humans.

We also learn, in this novel, about the founding of Three Pines. And we read about how men’s fear of women—fear of women who heal, who are educated, who are powerful—leads to violence. Penny wants us to understand that this fear of “other” is not limited to the past. Hundreds of years ago, women who healed and who were educated were called witches and killed. In 1989, women who wanted to study engineering were called “feminists” and slaughtered. And today, women who want control over their bodies and the ability to make their own medical decisions are threatened with punishment. In our time — right now — there are those who want to take away a woman’s right to contraception, the ability to choose whether or not to have a child.

Penny writes of the founder of Three Pines, Anne Lamarque, accused of witchcraft. The poet, Ruth, says that the men back then didn’t need proof of witchcraft. “All a woman had to be was alive. Just being a woman was, in the church’s eyes, evil.” When someone argues that there must be a reason, she responds, “Is there a reason gay, lesbian, and transgender people are attacked? Is there a reason Black men are shot? Is there a reason women are raped, abused, refused abortions, groomed and sold as sex slaves?” And centuries later, after the Montreal Massacre, Penny writes of the pushback against making changes to gun laws because some politicians and lawmakers thought it was an isolated incident not reflective of institutionalized misogyny. She writes of the women who pushed for stricter gun legislation, “Before the shooting, they were students. Now they were warriors.”

We also meet evil of the most depraved kind in this story. Gamache and the others try frantically to solve the puzzle of the contents of the attic, unravel its intent, and find the perpetrator, before they are all in serious danger. Along the way, the dead bodies are stacking up, and the action becomes more present and of greater urgency. We feel that pressure Gamache is feeling, the dire need to act and protect his community and friends, as he becomes emotionally distraught at the idea that he has let a madman into his mind, and that the killer might just be controlling his every move, putting his family and friends in extreme danger.

Can a novel be elegant and beautiful and yet horribly violent? Penny achieves that juxtaposition just as she forces us to feel the gamut of human emotions as we read about chilling abuse, psychopaths, and those imperfect people who try to fight for what is right and just. We see Gamache, perhaps at his weakest, frail like all of us are at times, yet determined to protect his loved ones. When I finished “A World of Curiosities,” I had mixed emotions. I was very satisfied that Gamache had managed to prevail, but I also wanted to go back and reread the whole book to see what clues I had missed about the outcome. I did catch one or two, but the book is so filled with details and people and background that it would take a meticulous reader to catch everything. But what fun trying! I recommended this as one of my top three reads during an end-of-the-year virtual event for Bookreporter.com.

I started reading the Gamache series in the middle, and Penny’s writing is so superlative that I didn’t feel the need to go back and start the series from the first book. But this book has changed that—I now want to read the whole series from the first book through the last one. Or at least the last book published.

Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.