How the Light Gets In: Louise Penny’s latest

At the beginning of her new novel, Louise Penny thanks Leonard Cohen for generously allowing her to use a line from his song “Anthem”. Cohen tells us in that song that “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” I have read all nine of Penny’s novels, so, presumably, I must have enjoyed them. And those lines by Cohen struck me from the first time I heard them as a neat summation of how good comes out of bad. Why, then, do I dislike their use as the title of her ninth and latest Armand Gomache mystery, How the Light Gets In?

Reviews, including one in the New York Times ranged from very positive to rhapsodic. Fans told of staying up half the night, of being totally emotionally engaged, of how they had waited breathlessly since the dire conclusion of book 8, The Beautiful Mystery for the resolution of this book. My goodness, I thought, and here I’ve been sleeping soundly oblivious to Gomache’s terrible suffering. I was so cold-hearted that I plodded through the book in my usual three days, closing it up at my regular bedtime.

How the Light Gets In, unlike The Beautiful Mystery, is set once again in the village of Three Pines, a place that cannot be found on any map, hidden and sheltered by wooded mountains where cell phone towers and internet connections cannot penetrate. And, despite its high body count over the years, an idyllic place with its village green, its outdoor rink, its used bookstore, its gourmet bistro with two fireplaces and its eccentric but helpful villagers. When he isn’t solving the latest murder there, Gomache retreats to it for solace, something he greatly needs now that his department in Quebec’s Sureté has been dismantled, his reputation is in decline and his good friend Jean-Guy Beauvoir is a drug addict.

Three Pines is south-east of Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.  I am familiar with this area. More or less. I recently made a sentimental journey back there to my birthplace. (See https://115journals.com/2013/09/11/septuagenarians-on-the-road-3/) While I was there, I stayed at Auberge Ayres Cliff (https://115journals.com/2013/09/14/septuagenarians-on-the-road-5/ ),an excellent hotel, every bit as cozy as the one in Three Pines, although much more on the beaten path.

When it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief, I’m a hard case. I spent my first five years freezing and starving in the hills of the Eastern Townships, albeit in a place that couldn’t be found except by those who had been there. True we were on a hill farm which produced a bumper crop of stones every year. Over the hill and down the valley, there was rich land with fat herds of dairy cows. Presumably, the hilltop soil had been scraped off our high land and deposited there. One of those farmers held the mortgage on our place. In the end, it seemed better to move to town.

But okay, I’ll go along with this Brigadoon-like village. I’d even like to sit by one of those two fire places drinking hot chocolate and eating hot buttered croissants. (No wait I’m gluten intolerant.)

Something I won’t dispute is fear of the Champlain Bridge. Too long, too high, too confusing with those changeable lane markings and too prone to traffic jams. In the opening chapter, a woman driving across that bridge comes undone. Some time later, her body is discovered dashed against the rocks beneath. It used to be the bridge that took you from Montreal across the wide St. Lawrence to Auto Route 20 and so into Les Cantons Est. Imagine my delight when I discovered this past summer that a new bridge allowed me to cross the river without going near Montreal.

Another thing I won’t dispute is the corrupt reputation of Quebec’s construction industry and its bureaucrats or some of them at least. Whether it is believable that they could be quite so dastardly or that the dastardliness could reach quite so high is a stretch. (Whoops – I seem to have lifted “dastardly” from Marilyn Stasio’s New York Times review.)

Nevertheless, the mystery of why a 77 year-old visitor to Three Pines is murdered on her return home to Montreal is intriguing. What does her murder have to do with her siblings? And, of course, there is the ongoing question of whether Gomache is going down to defeat as some terrible act of terrorism befalls La Belle Province.

Why do I resent Penny’s appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s line? I think it’s because Cohen’s idea belongs to the real world, which, let’s face it, is fraught with suffering and hard-earned insight. Penny’s world, on the other hand, is a fantasy, an imagined place of cozy friendship and monstrous villainy. It is the dissonance that bothers me.

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