For the first half of Kingdom of the Blind, no one gets killed.
That's got to be a relief for Armand Gamache, the intrepid detective who has been the central character in 13 earlier bestselling novels by Canadian author Louise Penny. An implacable investigator with a deep capacity for empathy, he's haunted not just by the murder victims whose deaths he tries to solve but by their survivors: "When a murder was committed, more than one person died."
Kingdom of the Blind, Penny's 14th book, finds Gamache dealing with a conundrum rather than a crime. He has received a letter from a notary bidding him to an appointment at a house in the countryside, near his home in the idyllic village of Three Pines.
Gamache doesn't know the notary and has no connection to the meeting place - both of which are unusual in a town so small - so curiosity sends him there. Besides the notary, Lucien Mercier, an odd little chap with minimal social skills, two other people are at the ramshackle, snowbound farmhouse.
One is Gamache's close friend and neighbor, psychologist turned bookstore owner Myrna Landers, a no-nonsense woman given to observations like "I'm always suspicious of people who seem too well balanced." The other is an engaging young man from Montreal whom none of them know, Benedict Pouliot.
The reason for the meeting, Mercier tells them, is that a woman named Bertha Baumgartner has named them as liquidators of her estate (what in the United States would be called executors).
The weird part is that none of them know who she is, or why she might have chosen them.
The elderly Bertha died peacefully in a nursing home; the farmhouse, about to collapse from years of neglect, was hers. Her will contains considerable surprises. But even Mercier can't explain her connection to the trio, having inherited her as a client from his late father without ever meeting her.
As a blizzard - which Penny describes so evocatively I reached for a blanket as I read - isolates a group of people at Gamache's cozy house, he and his friends try to puzzle out why the liquidators were chosen. As for who on earth Bertha was, they figure that out quickly. But she might not have been who they think she was at all.
Despite the threatening weather, it's a pleasant distraction for Gamache, who is facing dire circumstances in Montreal, where until recently he was the head of the Surete du Quebec, the province's police force.
Because of events in Penny's last novel, Glass House, he is now suspended and awaiting a decision about his future. His bold plan to shatter drug cartels operating in Montreal worked, but it left one of his top officers, Isabelle Lacoste, grievously wounded. Worse, it resulted in the loss of huge quantities of carfentanyl, a lethal opioid that has the potential to kill thousands if it isn't recovered. Gamache's plan could be a career-ending mistake.
In the midst of that, he also must deal with the downfall of a young woman he helped get into the police academy. Amelia Choquet is a former addict and prostitute, but Gamache sees in her sharp intelligence and fearless confidence the potential for a fine officer. Or did, until illegal drugs were discovered in her room.
Then, just about the time Gamache thinks they might have solved the Bertha puzzle, someone dies, and it's not a game anymore.
Penny does a splendid job of interweaving those three main plot lines, studding them with several life-threatening scenes that had me holding my breath, and building to a wild finale.
Gamache doesn't fit the mold of the typical fictional detective. They're usually loners with a small group of trusted allies (or none at all), their romantic interests transitory, their marriages busted, their children, if any, distanced.
Not Gamache. He not only has a deliriously happy, long marriage to the equable Reine-Marie, plus beloved children and grandchildren; he also has, in Three Pines, a close-knit and loyal circle of friends. Penny paints them all with humor and affection, and their eccentricities and diverse kinds of intelligence enliven the books immeasurably.
Those bonds explain his integrity and tender heart, and they also heighten the tension between the warm world of Three Pines and the dark violence Gamache so often encounters on his job. He's a man with a tremendous amount to lose.
Early in Kingdom of the Blind, he meditates on the things that can ruin a case or even end a life: "The threat didn't have to be monumental. If it were, it wouldn't be missed. It was almost always something tiny.
"A signal missed or misunderstood. A blind spot. A moment of distraction. A focus so sharp that everything around it blurred. A false assumption mistaken for fact."
Later, his friend and colleague Lacoste, whose life he both endangered and saved, will think about "this steady man in front of her, who believed everyone could be saved. Believed he could save them.
"It was both his saving grace and his blind spot."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.