KINGDOM OF THE BLIND: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel. By Louise Penny. Minotaur. 400 pages. $28.99.
"Kingdom of the Blind" is the 14th mystery in the Inspector Gamache series — and it's a spellbinder. But such critical praise hardly matters anymore to this series. By now Penny, deservedly, has built up such a large community of adoring readers that her novels belong to that most rarified of literary categories: They are review proof.
Like a slightly sinister holiday letter, Penny's mysteries, which have been coming out annually or more for over a decade, catch readers up on the latest news with Gamache's unruffled wife, Reine-Marie, his more emotionally vulnerable protege and son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and his dear friends in Three Pines — particularly the overwhelming fan favorite, that mad, duck-toting poet, Ruth Zardo. Only the late Robert B. Parker's Spenser series (still on-going, thanks to a talented group of ghostwriters) can be said to have generated such an intense level of readerly interest in the detective's widely assorted clan.
That's not to belittle the mystery tale here. "Kingdom of the Blind" is yet another outstanding Gamache adventure. In her by-now characteristic fashion, Penny simultaneously unspools several suspense narratives, each of them accruing power and threat, faster and faster, until the novel closes in a crescendo of violence, unmasking and regret. Whew.
The eerie opening scene riffs on the classic "dark and stormy night" formula: Penny conjures up a dark and snowy morning when the air is thick with menace. Gamache has just parked outside an old farmhouse in a locale even more isolated than his beloved village of Three Pines. Crooked, rotting and evidently abandoned, the farmhouse also seems to be waiting for him. Gamache notices that "one of the upper windows was boarded up, so that it looked like the place was winking at him." It was, he comments, "as though it knew something he did not." And, as if the atmosphere alone weren't macabre enough, the reason Gamache is freezing the pom-poms off on his French Canadian in an approaching blizzard is because he's been summoned there via letter by a solicitor he knows to be dead.
Gamache turns out to be one of three people invited to that spooky farmhouse (another is Myrna Landers, who runs the bookstore in Three Pines). The late owner, a woman named Bertha Baumgartner, worked as a cleaning lady but was called the Baroness because of her somewhat suspect claim of a connection to European aristocracy. Neither Gamache nor Myrna, nor the third person summoned to the farmhouse (a young construction worker) knew the Baroness, but her lawyer gives all three the bizarre news that they've all been designated as the executors of her will. This possibly delusional document turns out to have the power to kill.
Meanwhile, there are some dirty loose ends dangling from the ragged conclusion of Gamache's last outing — one that ended in his suspension from the police force Surete du Quebec. In "Glass Houses" Gamache brought down a giant drug cartel, but in order to do so, he deliberately had to allow some lethally potent opioids to slip through the hands of the police. Most of the drugs have been rounded up since then, but one shipment remains out there, prompting Gamache, with scant backup, to venture into the drug-riddled underworld of Montreal.
The scenery there is a far cry from the winter wonderland loveliness of Three Pines: "The streets of inner-city Montreal had changed. Never safe. Never clean. Never fun, now they were many degrees worse." There Gamache saw the dealers and addicts and prostitutes, going about their business in broad daylight. Knowing no cop would stop them. "This part of rue Ste.-Catherine wasn't so much an artery as an intestine."
Gamache's most trusted ally, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is oddly absent from this endeavor. Instead, he's fighting off pressure from politicians and slimy superiors at the Surete to betray Gamache by signing a statement that attests to Gamache's recklessness in allowing the opioids to be dispersed. If Jean-Guy doesn't cooperate, his own career as a police detective is curtains.
As always, Penny's moral vision and evident love for her own characters imbue all these situations with emotional depth. Over the course of this series, that love has proven to be contagious. "Kingdom of the Blind" is an ingenious mystery that follows a thoughtful group of beloved characters navigating their way through a fallen world. What more could a mystery reader — or any reader for that matter — want?
Reviewer Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air" and teaches literature at Georgetown University.