It’s easy to think of the Inspector Armand Gamache mystery novels by Louise Penny as character-driven. Her dominant character, Inspector Gamache of the Quebec Surete, spans some 13 novels and has survived ambushes, shootings, nefarious plots and betrayals by his own police force, and more. His presence looms large in each of the Penny novels. But even her lesser characters are strong ones – Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s son-in-law and second-in-command, Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, and the residents of Three Pines – Myrna, Clara, Olivier, Gabriel, and especially Ruth Zardo the crazy poet with her duck Rosa.
Penny draws her characters so well that it’s easy to miss what truly drives her stories – and that is the story itself, what each novel is about. Glass Houses, her most recent book (published in 2017), exemplifies the power of Penny as storyteller. She alternates her story between a murder trial in which Gamache is being questioned by the prosecutor and six months earlier when the murder actually took place.
The story centers in Three Pines, the small (very small) village in Quebec, close to the Vermont border and not far from Montreal. This is where the Gamaches have made their home (Gamache has retired once, and then agreed to come back as the head of the Surete). It is here that one November day a cobrador appears on the village green, staring at Olivier and Gabriel’s bistro. Dressed in a body-long cloak and hood, wearing a mask, the cobrador says nothing. He, or she, or it, simply stares.
A few people in the village recognize what is going on. A cobrador is a myth-like figure known is Spain, someone hired to follow a debtor who won’t pay his bills, or really anyone who has done something wrong and won’t atone. A cobrador is a conscience. The question is, who is the figure staring at?
Then there’s a murder. The body is found in the basement of the town’s small church. The victim has been beaten to death with a baseball bat, and the victim is wearing the clothes of the cobrador.
Back and forth Penney weaves the story, first in the courtroom and then in Three Pines. Slowly we come to see that the prosecutor’s badgering of Gamache has a purpose; there is a plan behind it, and Gamache is part of that plan. Something besides a murder trial, something far greater and more important, is going on. And that “something” is what drives the story of Glass Houses.
It says a great deal about the author that her stories continue to get better and better, when they began somewhere near the level of outstanding.
Top photograph: In Spain, people actually work as cobradors, usually in connection with a debt collection agency. The cobrador in Glass Houses looks more like a monk with a cowl and mask.