How do you electrocute someone on a frozen lake, in front of dozens of witnesses?

Equally significant, perhaps, is why. Why choose such a complicated murder method? Why choose to risk carrying out such a dangerous act in front of such a large audience? The local police in sleepy Three Pines – a small, Quebecois village – are baffled and quickly call in Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.

What’s it about?

As Gamache attempts to uncover the murderer, he quickly realises that everyone disliked the victim, CC de Poitiers, including her lover. A cold, self-absorbed and bitter woman, CC’s death will sadden no-one, but as Gamache’s team start to uncover clues, the complexity of her murder has them puzzled. Did someone think CC deserved the electric chair?

Meanwhile, Gamache is also investigating an unsolved homicide in Montreal. Apparently, each boxing day Gamache and a colleague from another police force swap files on unsolved murders to see if they can shed any light on the old crimes (because what else would you choose to do with your wife on boxing day but read through a bunch of grisly murders?) This time, a live case has crept into the files by accident, perhaps because no one is trying too hard to solve the death of a homeless woman.

Finally, Gamache is aware of his own enemies, who have made his career stagnate for several years, acting in the shadows. Can he even trust his own team?

What’s it like?

Immediately intriguing – how do you electrocute someone on ice? and why would you kill them that way? – and ultimately saddening, this is a story rooted in past events that are only gradually revealed to the reader, leading inexorably to the horrible truth.

As always in Penny’s Three Pines series, the series regulars are present to add colour and commentary on the nature of the crime – and the victim! Each character is given a brief introduction so there is no need to worry about who’s who, though I still find it quite surreal to find the Chief Inspector spending his evenings curled up in the local Bistro, chatting informally about the crime with the local residents and being insulted by local poet and oddball Ruth Zardo.

Unsurprisingly (because this is a crime story after all), the murder in Montreal turns out to be related to the murder in Three Pines in a rather far fetched way. Of course, this is a story where two characters genuinely believe they have met God, and where discussing philosophical viewpoints is as important as collecting clues, so disbelief definitely needs to be suspended here!

I was far less interested in the machinations around Gamache’s future with the Surete, the elite police force, (why must our detective have enemies who wish him harm? Is it to prove how angelic he is in contrast to his more worldly peers?) but fortunately there wasn’t too much about that over arching series narrative in this book.

Final thoughts

The victim, CC, had recently self-published a self-help book called ‘Be Calm’, and although the main recurring characters scoff at the mish-mash of vague notions which comprise the book’s worldview, one key detractor is horrified by the whole book: ‘She advised people to swallow their emotions. Her book, if followed by anyone, would lead to serious mental illness’. While we can’t take this as gospel (the speaker did not like CC!) there is certainly a sense in these Three Pines stories that Penny is teaching readers – in a completely non-didactic way! – the path to better mental health. Secrets are corrosive. Bullies will get their comeuppance. Everyone needs recognition and positive attention. I quite enjoy this aspect of the books, which isn’t a typical aspect of detective novels.

I also really enjoyed the regular, small moments of humour scattered throughout the story. At one point, Gamache allows Beauvoir to handle a piece of evidence from the Montreal case, suddenly struck by an impression that, ‘Beauvoir would see something he hadn’t’. Gamache watches Beauvoir handling the box, nodding instead of speaking, ‘not wanting to break Beauvoir’s attention’ and waiting for his subordinate’s big intuitive moment, where he will, ‘put it all together’. Instead, Beauvoir abruptly returns the evidence, dismissing it as, ‘Collected letters? What a nutcase.’ Ah, well.

Once again, I am minded to advise that readers would benefit from reading these in order, particularly to watch for the signs of flaws in characters – like Peter’s jealousy – that may feature more prominently in future stories, as it’s fun to see the characters develop across the series.

Finally, this may sound like quite a ‘cosy’ crime story, and in many ways it is, but there is also a genuine darkness to these tales – the darkness of human souls – that stops everything feeling light or easy or of no consequence. Led by Gamache, the reader is invited to see the joy in human relationships, but reminded that our darkness needs monitoring, lest it consume us.

‘Dead Cold’,
Louise Penny,
2006, Headline, hardback

My reviews of other Louise Penny books:

‘Still Life’

The Brutal Telling’