One of the pitfalls of writing a crime fiction series is the tendency to get stuck in a rut, re-writing the same book over and over again in an effort to please loyal fans of the series. Ironically, this is exactly the thing that will cause readers to drift from a beloved series. Never one to rest on her laurels, Louise Penny enjoys throwing her readers a curveball every now and then. Her series, set in the fictional town of Three Pines, started out as fairly traditional mysteries – albeit, ones with more philosophical and metaphysical attributes than typically seen in genre fiction – but eventually Louise Penny realized that she would need to stray from Three Pines proper in order to curtail the increasing body count within such a small community. That alteration was followed by the occasional tonal shift in the style of some books: for example, readers were given her version of a historical mystery with Bury Your Dead, virtually a locked-room crime in The Beautiful Mystery, and a straight-up thriller with The Nature of the Beast. Now, with her newest novel, Glass Houses, Louise Penny offers readers her take on the courtroom drama. And just as with each of those other examples, Penny manages to subvert any previously held expectations of a crime novel and in the process creates something wholly original – something that can now rightfully be called Penny-esque.
Glass Houses begins with Armand Gamache on the witness stand during a criminal trial. In a brilliant piece of subterfuge, Louise Penny keeps the reader in the dark regarding what type of crime, who the victim was, as well as, who is on trial for committing this criminal act. As Gamache testifies, flashbacks transport readers to Three Pines where the events that led to this crime are recounted. This back and forth interplay generates an added level of tension and suspicion, which would have been lacking with a standard chronological telling of the tale. Fairly quickly, readers discover that a murder occurred – no surprise there – but it isn’t until about halfway through the novel that the revelation of who actually died takes place and then by the final quarter of the book, readers will know who is on trial.
That alone would be more than enough to comfortably fill the plot of Glass Houses, but tried and true is not Louise Penny’s modus operandi here. Readers will immediately sense that this is not like any typical murder trial. Why does it seem that all parties involved are attempting to undermine the path to justice? And how does all of this relate to the odd figure who stood at the edge of Three Pines staring, but not moving, for several days back in the Fall?
As with all of her novels, Louise Penny is examining larger truths in Glass Houses. Underlying this captivating plot are universal ideas about the nature of conscience, the power of regret, and the destructive spirit of guilt. Meanwhile, Three Pines is facing a much larger threat – one that seems unstoppable and which has ramifications far beyond the village confines. Gamache has a plan, but failure will cost more than anyone is willing to admit.
Dichotomously, Glass Houses is a book that both begs to be read in one sitting and yet also seduces readers into savoring every single word as slowly as possible. Taken as a whole, Louise Penny’s oeuvre could be published under the sub-title “On How to be a Better Person.” Louise Penny has an innate gift for understanding the most complex human emotions and the ability to demonstrate those traits via compelling, believable plotlines. In a time when the world seems on the cusp of disaster at every turn, reading and learning seem to be our only hope. The folks that visit Three Pines understand that no matter how flawed man is, we must cling to the inherent goodness in the majority to see the brighter future possible off on the horizon.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title were provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.