Dead of Winter

 "The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it."
- Hercule Poirot (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926)
A little over a month ago, I promised this place would resume its steady, regular course without any further interruptions. Well, that whole scheme didn't exactly pan out this month, but, hopefully, this was the last prolonged silence on this blog – until the end of the year anyway. And now, once again, without further ado...

Dead Cold (2007) by Louise Penny is the follow-up to her multiple award winning debut mystery novel, Still Life (2005), which introduced Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Louise Penny made it on my wishlist on account of the reviews posted by Patrick on his blog, but a few topics (here and here) severely mocking the "ultra-modern," socially aware and character-driven crime novels on the GADetection Group slingshotted Dead Cold to the top of the pile. The topic is worth a peek, unless you consider yourself to be a member of the "respectable wing" of the genre, because that place is teeming with barbarians who read detective stories just for fun.

Anyhow, I can see how Dead Cold, originally published as A Fatal Grace, wasn't awarded this year's Edgar, because it's another obstacle in the path of the Crime Novel becoming Serious, Respectable and Dignified Literature – even going as far as tossing an impossible crime angle in the plot like the proverbial monkey wrench. Good job, Mrs. Penny!

The scene of the crime is the small, quiet Québécois town of Three Pines, wrapped in the white powdered cloak of the Christmas season, where the annual Boxing Day curling match is rudely interrupted by a piercing scream. CC de Poitiers was a self-invented self-help guru, who created the self-proclaimed successor of Feng-Shui, a patchwork of philosophies known as "Li Bien," and was obviously full of herself and a cruel streak – which provides ample motives for her assassin-in-waiting. And there are more than enough potential murderers walking around in Three Pines... including her own family. However, the murky method for dispatching CC can be labeled as esoteric. De Poitiers was sitting in a crowd, on a frozen lake, watching the game when someone, somehow, managed to electrocute her!

Armand Gamache's team is called in and (I think) he partly epitomizes the difference between Canada and America, because Gamache appears to be a lot closer related to the European-style policeman you'll find in modern mysteries than his American colleagues of the today. Gamache is a hardworking, capable policeman who’s married and relies mainly on teamwork with office politics usually making things more difficult than they should be. I was tempted to compare Gamache with DCI Tom Barnaby from the Midsomer Murders, but, as I read further, Gamache also began to remind me somewhat of Inspector Bram Petersen from M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug-series – which was also influenced by Penny's plotting technique and ability to combine symbolism with plot-patterns.

The main difference is the location and culture of the story's backdrop. It's modeled as a typical English-village mystery, but you'll never mistake it for one as the characters populating Three Pines, fleshed out without cannibalizing the plot, are Canadian. I think this is the first (very) Canadian mystery I have read, but, as a foreign reader, it adds an extra layer of attractiveness to the story – especially when the author isn't above giving the surrounding an air of mystery. Quebecois are described as undistinguishable from one another, all wrapped in winter clothing, and how a murderer can practically move around unobserved and pepper the story with historical references to the House of Plantagenet, allusions to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and you've a book that I couldn't wait to get back to for nearly a week. I commend Penny for making me reject the murderer, but coming back to this person made, logically, sense and there were clues. Or, to use the term approved by the politburo, "indicators."

I have to point out, before wrapping up this review, how much I enjoyed the false solution that nearly fooled Gamache, which basically required a couple of Canadians to violently agree with each other on a horrible, horrible decision. Excellently tied-in with the seemingly impossible electrocution and actually more believable, but the eventual explanation gelled better with the overarching plot.

So, to finally put an end to my first, rambling post in exactly two weeks time, Dead Cold is an enjoyable, well-written, fair play mystery set in a place that's surprisingly overlooked in a genre (once) very popular in the Angelo-Franco world, but Penny has clearly corrrrected that oversight. I'll be more than likely back to peek over Gamache's shoulder again, because Penny reportedly wrote another impossible crime novel!


  1. Thanks TC, sounds well worth a look then - not read anything by her yet

    1. You're welcome. If you enjoy traditional mysteries, you'll probably appreciate Louise Penny. Definitely another name for the modern safe-list.

  2. I've been championing this writer since 2007 when I first discovered her. This book is much better than her debut which is a fine detective novel until the clunky ending not at all improved upon in the less than exciting CBC TV movie adaptation. Penny's been accused of being preachy, didactic, and "touchy-feely" in telling her stories but one can never fault her plotting at which she excels. I've said it many times: she is one of the few contemporary mystery writers who truly understands the genre. To my mind she is the only writer who can construct a genuine detective novel, make it entertaining, thought provoking, genuinely baffling and -- most importantly -- be consistent in doing so in book after book. I know for a fact that she reads and studies old mystery books and her research has paid off well.

    If you read RULE FOR MURDER (aka THE MURDER STONE ) I'm sure you'll figure out the manner in which the impossible crime was carried out. It has a blatantly planted clue that sticks out like a sore thumb. It basically gives away how the crime was committed. But as for determining who actually committed the crime - that's a whole other story.