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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.

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