Louise Penny writes mysteries buried within a morality play. In A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, within the first few pages, a murder is discovered and the identity of the victim lifts a corner of the canvas that has been thrown over the past in an attempt to make it seem a golden time when all things were bright and beautiful.
Clara Morrow has been discovered. After years of experimentation, Clara’s gift shines in the series of portraits that are on display in her solo show at the prestigious Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal. The most outstanding of the portraits is that of an old and clearly embittered woman, “She was angry. Filled with contempt. Hating what she heard and saw. The happiness all around her. The laughter. Hating the world that had left her behind. Left her alone on this wall. To see, to watch and to never be included….here was a great spirit endlessly tormented.” Few who viewed the picture realized who Clara had painted. “She’d in fact painted the Virgin Mary. Elderly. Abandoned by a world weary and wary of miracles. A world too busy to notice a stone rolled back. It had moved on to other wonders.” And yet, in the eye is something, perhaps some hope. Or is it, “merely a trick of the light.”
The model for Clara’s picture of the Virgin is Ruth Zardo, a foul-mouthed, constantly-drinking, continually-petulous old woman honored by the Canadian government for her exceptional poetry. Ruth as the disappointed Mother of the Hope of the World, whose discourse uses words so different form the evocative words of her poetry is the physical representation of the issues the author asks her characters to comprehend and solve. Ruth is disappointed because hope hides and she uses language as a spear to keep away those who are angry that life reneged on its promise.
Sunday morning Peter and Olivier came home with the national and international newspapers, eager to read the reviews of Clara’s work that could be nothing but effusive and glowing. As they walk past the garden to the house, they drop the papers. In the garden, is the body of a woman. Inspector Armand Gamache, a friend of the people in Three Pines, arrives from Montreal to begin the investigation. She is lying face up on the grass and her neck is broken. She was middle-aged, slightly overweight, hair dyed blond. No one in Three Pines recognizes her; no one remembers her from the showing in Montreal. But when the police take her license from her bag, showing her as Lillian Dyson, Clara is pulled back to her earliest memories.
Lillian Dyson and Clara had been next door neighbors, best friends, inseparable companions until they reached their late teens. Both bright and artistically talented, they had supported each other while in art school in Montreal but when it became clear that Lilian was very talented but not nearly so gifted as Clara the friendship disintegrated under the weight of comparisons. Lillian had remained in the art world as a critic for major newpapers on both sides of the border. Her specialty was destroying careers before they started and killing talent before it developed. Lillian was not without enemies. Many of the gallery owners, art critics, and agents had come to the showing and to Three Pines. Gamache is spoiled for choice; so many would have liked to kill Lillian. Question was: who wanted to do so all these years after her printed attacks?
More questions are raised when, the next day, Gamache finds a beginner’s chip from Alcoholics Anonymous in a flower bed near the place where Lillian’s body was found. Gamache discovers for himself that one never knows who one will meet at an AA meeting. In Gamache’s case, it is someone who can smooth the road for him in his investigation. Penny does her readers a service by explaining the methods and the principles of AA; she writes in case there is someone who reads her books and needs the group but doesn’t know where to start.
Clara is at sea, thinking all the time about a drowning man. Her marriage is falling apart and the proximate cause is her great artistic success. Throughout their marriage, she and Peter had supported each other, offering encouragement when doubt emerged. It has been a long time since either gave thought to the state of their relationship but the showing has revealed Peter’s envy and the petty methods he is using to undermine her confidence. Clara realizes that her support of Peter hasn’t been as strong as it should have been.
The Morrows marriage isn’t the only one falling apart. Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s right-hand-man is also faced with the end of his marriage, an effect of one of his cases. Even Gamache’s daughter, Annie, seems to be moving on from her husband. Ties that should be strong are being broken, leaving Jean Guy and Annie in the same place as Peter and Clara, facing the things they had not noticed throughout the days of their lives.
The author makes a case for the mixed blessing that great talent can be. It invites enemies, people who are talented but not talented enough. It creates people who give up the thing they love because they doubt themselves too much and, in their unhappiness, they fall into envy that poisons them.
The word “chiaroscuro” is used frequently, a reference to the contrast of light and dark. In A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, there is much that falls into each category but, at the end, there is still hope, a hope that isn’t a trick of the light but is based on personal growth and forgiveness. This is the most character driven of the books in the series and it is a wonderful book because the characters are so real, no matter which side of the personality is being revealed.
I think the Three Pines series should be read in order of publication because there is so much character development and change. The reader may be cheated to do otherwise.