Book ReviewsCrime and thrillers

A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny — an intolerant world

Cover of A World of Curiosities, the 18th book in the Chief Inspector Gamache crime series by Louise Penny.

Just when I suspected the Chief Inspector Gamache series was running of out steam, Louise Penny comes out with a corker of a novel in the shape of A World of Curiosities.

This is the 18th title in the series featuring Armand Gamache, head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his friends and neighbours in the small village of Three Pines. It has all the features we’ve come to expect and love: the camaraderie of the inhabitants of Three Pines; the Chief’s intuitive understanding of human nature and an intricately woven, emotionally nuanced plot.

it begins in the past, with recollections of the murder of a prostitute and drug addict whose two children were discovered to be victims of sexual abuse. The case has haunted Gamache and his second in command Jean Guy Beauvoir for many years.

Now, some ten years after that incident, those children arrive unexpectedly in Three Pines.

Fiona Arsenault has turned her life around, gaining an engineering degree thanks to the support of Gamache and his wife. But the Chief has always felt uneasy about her younger brother, Sam. Everyone else is charmed by this handsome young man but Garmache fears there is a dark, malicious streak in his nature. His intuition tells him to be on his guard while Sam is in Three Pines.

In a separate plot thread, Gamache is called upon to solve the mystery of a secret room discovered in the attic of the village bookstore. Inside, the villagers discover a long lost copy of a “grimoire” an old book thought to have been used by witches to summon demons. Nearby is a huge painting.

On first sight this appears to be a copy of The Paston Treasure, a priceless work known also as A World of Curiosities that dates from the 1600s. But on closer inspection the painting reveals some oddities — among the objects depicting life in the seventeenth century are modern day items like digital watches and model aeroplanes.

Each anachronistic object is a message, a warning of a catastrophe with all the signs pointing to Gamache and his family as the target.

These two threads come together in a plot that is as ingeniously constructed as ever though much darker than we’ve seen in earlier novels. It’s suspenseful yet also thought-provoking, a clever mixing of fact and fiction that asks questions about forgiveness, revenge and tolerance.

As ever, my real interest in this novel is what lies beyond the plot and the characterisation. Louise Penny frequently introduces a key theme into her narrative to explore the darker side of human nature or to shine a light on a contemporary issue. In the past we’ve had jealousy, euthanasia, police corruption, prescription drug addiction and PTSD.

A World of Curiosities delves into the evil perpetrated upon women across the centuries.

Key points of the narrative point to a tragedy at the Polytechnic University in Quebec in 1989, when 14 female engineering students were killed in an anti-feminist attack. Intolerance is also evident in the history of the grimoire found in Three Pines. During the sixteenth century women discovered to be in possession of such a book faced exile or were burned at the stake. In the minds of the religious leaders of their community, such books were unholy.

‘They didn’t need proof. All a woman had to be was alive. Just being a woman was, in the church’s eyes, evil.’
‘But there must’ve been a reason,’ said Gabri.
‘Is there a reason gay, lesbian, and transgender people are attacked?’ asked Ruth. ‘Is there a reason Black men are shot? Is there a reason women are raped, abused, refused abortions, groomed and sold as sex slaves?

Clearly A World of Curiosities is not cozy crime even if Three Pines does have the vibe of being a rural idyll. The issue of child abuse that features in the early chapters might be off-putting to some readers but it’s handled with sensitivity and minimal detail.

My one criticism of this book, and the series as a whole, is the frequent appearance in the narrative of a pet duck called Rosa, owned by the award-winning poet Ruth Zardo. Zardo is a brilliantly vivid character, a heavy-drinking, blunt-spoken woman who upsets just about all her neighbours in Three Pines.

But Penny goes and ruins this with incessant references to the duck, and its supposed humorous reflections on the situation. So we get passages like this:

“Bad things can happen even here.”
“She got that right,” said Ruth, and Rosa nodded. Though ducks often did.”

I live in hope that by the time the next book comes out, that blasted duck will have found another home — anywhere as long as its not in Three Pines.

A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny: Footnotes

 Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series of novels (also known as the Three Pines series) began with Still Life in 2005. A new television adaptation began airing via Amazon Prime in November 2022 with Alfred Molina in the star role. I’ve seen the first two episodes and was underwhelmed so shall just stick to the books in future.

The early books each featured a murder case that was solved within the book but there was also a storyline that ran across several titles. This dealt with the Chief’s suspicions of a conspiracy within the heart of the Sûreté.

Though each book can be read in isolation, the early ones are best appreciated when read in order of publication. This latest book however can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of Penny’s back catalogue.

My thanks go to the publishers Hodder and Stoughton for supplying me with a copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny — an intolerant world

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  • I enjoyed this one as I’ve enjoyed all her mysteries.
    The TV series has some odd casting; Myrna, in particular, is neither old enough nor fat enough.

    • I hadn’t picked up on the mismatch of the Myrna physique but looking at some of the clips I can see what you mean. Molina was not my impression of Gamache at all

  • A book with many layers. May add it to my TBR when a place becomes available.

    • it’s the multi-layered approach that appeals to me in all her novels

  • I found the book so well written as usual, but so tough becaus eof the child abuse part. Yes, if the author had been somebody other than Penny, I would have DNFed it.
    Actually I think Rosa was important to add some levity to the whole thing, otherwise it would have been so so heavy.
    When I visited Knowlton, where Louise Penny lives, I understood the duck. They have a big festival there about ducks, and there’s this huge fresco with ducks in the very old inn – that inspired the café.
    I can’t find a pitcure online. Nice incentive to finally post info about my trip there a few years ago!!

    • Rosa was an amusing element when it was first used but I think its now being over -used and has lost its charm for me at least.

      • Cedar

        Absolutely. That was one of my major complaints. And as much as I like Bathurst’s narrative voice- I can’t stand his voicing the Canadian characters – especially Ruth (except Gamache). Best not to try to sound like someone he isn’t. This isn’t always true, some narrators do it very well.

    • Especially because it came with some supposedly funny remark that breaks the fourth wall. Grrrr

  • I love reading novels where a specific painting, either real or invented, features – especially when we’re given a detailed description of it. I suppose it’s part and parcel of my needing a sense of space in my fiction, whether an imaginary environment like Gormenghast or that of Piranesi’s carceri, or descriptions of real geography in fiction.

    But I couldn’t manage the duck, either – unless done with wit in a Pratchett novel.

    • Definitely not a witty duck in this book.
      Every time I come across a book which references a specific painting I just have to go and research it. Same thing happens if I find references to textile patterns associated with a particular country. Then I invariably disappear down a rabbit hole. But its all part of the enriching experience of reading

  • I first read one of this series when Louise Penny and Ann Cleeves both came and talked at our local indie bookshop: it was an excellent event. Both authors clearly enjoyed one another’s company and sparked good discussion. But I came unstuck when I decided I had to read the books in order, because the library never obliged me, I also decided that Three Pines was an unbelievably twee community, and other books on the TBR got in the way. You’ve pretty much convinced me to have another go though. Let’s see …

    • The new adaptation does make Three Pines excessively twee. In the book you just have to accept what is unrealistic – that a place that is so small it can’t even be found on the map has a wonderful bistro, a B&B, an award winning poet, esteemed psychologist and respected painter……

  • A series I really want to get back to. I leave it too long between books, forget where I am, what happened in the last book, and end up putting them aside again. But this one sounds especially intriguing!

    • Ah yes that is the problem I’ve run into with a few series. But I also don’t like reading each one back to back – I feel I need a breather between them

  • The duck is not my fav either! This installment is a bit darker than I like…..and there was just a lot (too much) going on. Not my fav installment. Nice review though!

    • I didn’t mind the dark edge to it – it didn’t feel over done or gratuitous but I understand other readers have different reactions.


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