Throwing No Stones

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book cover for Glass Houses by Louise Penny

I begin this post with a disclaimer: I may not be the most impartial judge when it comes to Louise Penny. In the past couple of years she has become, hands down, one of my favorite mystery authors who could easily transcend genre if she chose to do so. Her new book. Glass Houses, is one of the best mysteries I have read this year. Pay close attention to the story and try not to get too wrapped up in the (sometimes eccentric, but beloved) supporting cast, or you will miss vital clues that are dropped along the way in this absorbing and artfully plotted mystery.

Glass Houses opens in a unique fashion, different from any of her previous twelve books starring our favorite conscientious detective, Armand Gamache (now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec). Lucky number thirteen sets up a Montreal courtroom drama, with Gamache narrating flashbacks that provide the backbone of the story. In the opening sequence, it is the height of summer and Gamache is under questioning about a murder that had taken place the earlier in the fall. As the Crown prosecutor continues with his examination, Armand Gamache establishes the backstory of the people and events that began with the Halloween party at the Bistro the previous autumn. It is clear during this testimony that there is an animosity between the two men that is spilling out into open court, as they remain appallingly hostile toward each other. This is a type of scene not normally witnessed in the presence of presiding judge (and new character) Maureen Corriveau. The judge is trying her first homicide case and is curious about the acrimony, but ignores it in an effort to retain the semblance of civility between the two men. Why the animosity? To answer that, Penny brings to the forefront the overarching theme of conscience to her latest work, as Gamache replies to one of the many questions volleyed his way with a quote from Gandhi “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

This theme of conscience gradually begins to permeate the entire story line, including the conduct of the seemingly inept police department. Penny invokes what could have merely been a metaphor (conscience) and transfigures it into an actual person, when a masked individual dressed completely in black at the Halloween party emerges on the village green to stake his territory, rarely moving, remaining almost eerily still. The usual villagers, along with four out-of-town university friends having their annual reunion at the local bed and breakfast make their appearances. As Gamache testifies in court, this person went from an odd curiosity at a Halloween party to a menacing fixture in the village. With a little research, it’s discovered that this horrid thing is a “Cobrador” or traditional Spanish “debt-collector” that had in the past been used as a warning – a conscience. It becomes evident as the story moves forward that someone had done something reprehensible—and in doing so, the very embodiment of a conscience had been summoned.

However, Ms. Penny’s books are never that straightforward. There is another, more important story that parallels that of the murder. It is based on a single and deliberate decision that Gamache made as the new head of the Sûreté; the ramifications of which are already becoming clear. A war has begun and he must account for it. Would the seemingly insurmountable sacrifice be worth it? The twists and turns that trial takes will determine not only that, but also the future of the small village of Three Pines, as every character in this book strives to reach his own court of conscience until the story reaches its violent climax. To say any more on the subject would risk spoiling the story, so here is where I leave it.

There are books that thrive on the thrill of the chase, and there are those that are compelling reflections on life’s more quiet moments and what transpires when all is seemingly tranquil and still. This book celebrates what can be achieved in the quietude and how nothing worthwhile can happen without some measure of sacrifice. It begs the question, what does it take to, in the words of Shakespeare, feel a “peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience?”

Takeaway: Check out a copy of Glass Houses today!

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Whitney Z. is a native Pittsburgher. She is currently a substitute Library Assistant who loves audiobooks, music and movies. She believes firmly that NASA made a mistake in demoting Pluto and would sincerely like for said decision to be reversed.