Clara Morrow has finally been discovered as an artist at the age of fifty. She has her own solo show in a prestigious Montreal art museum, and to celebrate, her friends are throwing her a party in their small village of Three Pines. Everything is going smashingly, until a dead body is discovered in her garden, and it turns out to be her old childhood friend, Lillian, with whom she had a bitter parting as an adult.
With yet another dead body in close proximity to these same people (I’m just going with it at this point), Chief Inspector Gamache is called in. What follows is an impressively subtle examination of the dead woman and her life, with Penny weaving the themes of dark and light, illusion and truth, throughout. The dead woman had been exceptionally cruel to most of the people in her life, or spent years lying to them and presenting a false face (as in the case of her parents). An emotional vampire, she took pleasure in ruining people’s lives, in manipulating them and taking advantage, as she did with Clara, until Clara broke free of her control. Now, years later, it appears that she has been attempting to heal, to make amends, and to genuinely change. It is the center of the investigation, the question: Was her change real? Can people really change? Or was it all, to quote the title, “a trick of the light?”
I find it kind of beautiful that also at the center of the book is a group of recovering alcoholics (Lillian had joined AA nine months before her death). They are almost the only people in the book who actively confront the false fronts they put on for other people, and for themselves, who have it as a part of their recovery to challenge their own perceptions of the world around them.
And then there’s Clara and Peter’s relationship, and the reckoning that’s been coming there for a while. The events of Lillian’s death, and the success of Clara’s art, finally lead the two of them to a place where they can speak the truth about their relationship: That it is fundamentally broken. Peter is a jealous, insecure man, who instead of being happy for his wife’s success, is angry and bitter, seeing it only as a reflection of his own failure. He’s so caught up in his own perception, he can’t even appreciate his wife’s talent. With that secret of his finally out in the light, we and Clara in fact finally see that their relationship was built on the idea that Peter was the talented one, and that Clara’s weird, simple art (as Peter sees it) will never take off. His marriage was a built-in ego booster. And now that’s gone.
There’s also some really interesting stuff going on with Gamache, and his relationship with Beauvoir, who is falling apart. He is doing exactly the opposite of what Lillian was before her death, hiding behind a false face, pretending everything is fine, and secretly popping pills, keeping his fears and his resentments and grievances held tight to himself. He makes for a fascinating contrast to Gamache, who also keeps things to himself, but for different reasons: Out of concern, or to keep professional boundaries.
Really glad I stuck with this series, kind of scared for what’s going to happen next.