After reading The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, her 17th Inspector Armand Gamache mystery novel, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the next one, only that there would likely be a next one. Something seemed off with The Madness of Crowds, and I couldn’t precisely say what it was, only that when you try to write fiction about a COVID pandemic, what you write can easily be out-of-date by the time the book is published.
The 18th Gamache novel is A World of Curiosities. The title is taken from an actual artwork, “The Paston Treasure,” painted about 1663 and now in the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Norfolk, England. The artist is unknown; the painting is not signed. In A World of Curiosities, what looks like the painting is discovered in a hidden room in the home of Myrna Landers, who lives and operates the bookstore in Three Pines, where the Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache now live. On close examination, however, it’s realized that the painting is really a copy of the original, with a considerable number of changes.
How did it get there? How and when was the room hidden, when even Myrna Landers herself didn’t know it was there? What does it have to do with the death of a woman who may, or may not have, committed suicide in a nearby town? And someone in Three Pines is not who they say they are and may be determined to destroy Gamache and his family.
Penny combines the story of the painting with the back story of who Gamache and his chief lieutenant (and son-in-law) Jean-Guy Beauvoir came to work together – a horrific case in a small, isolated provincial town in Quebec in which the body of woman was found in a lake. It turned out that the woman has been prostituting her two young children, a brother and a sister. And now the two are living in Three Pines, and one, or both, may be psychopaths.
This is a dark, dark story. It has a fascinating, involved premise based on the painting. Penny writes a good story; she’s a wonderful storyteller. The last 50 pages will have you jumping up every two or three minutes to take a break from the tension.
What is disappointing, however, was something too many authors seem to be falling into. Instead of simply telling a story, some authors feel compelled to share their political views with the reader. Putting words in the mouths on beloved characters isn’t going to convince me that the author’s political views are correct. And it seems forced. I know now how Penny feels about gun control, police forces, the Catholic church, and religion in general. And it’s a problem for the story. Based strictly on the expressed political views, I predicted who the killer would be. And I got it exactly right. All of this detracts from what would be an otherwise fascinating, if very dark, story.
I bought the book in anticipation of reading another good Armand Gamache mystery. The story premise is indeed a good one. But injecting personal political beliefs into it makes it something less than what it might have been. I don’t need to spend $30 to learn about how a mystery writer feels about contemporary political issues.
Painting: The Paston Treasure, oil on cavas circa 1663 by an unknown artist; Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.