Glass Houses by Louise Penny: A review

Louise Penny's latest book featuring Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, is a meditation on the role of the conscience in human affairs, as, in fact, all of her books are. It seems only incidental that there is a murder to solve.

Gamache's team from the Sûreté is intact, as are his friends and supporters in the little anonymous village of Three Pines where he and his wife Reine-Marie had moved after his initial "retirement" from the Sûreté. Of course, that retirement didn't take.

Now, Gamache must face the fact that his team is losing - or has already lost - perhaps its toughest battle: the war on drugs. Drugs pass almost freely through the province of Québec on their way south to the huge market in the United States. The porous border between the province and Vermont, much of it heavily forested, makes it almost impossible for the police to interdict the traffic. 

People are dying in great numbers on both sides of the border from the effects of these drugs. The market has long since moved on from marijuana, cocaine, heroin, to opioids. The latest thing is fentanyl. (Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, a story appeared in The New York Times that reported that nationwide deaths from fentanyl had risen by 540% in three years.)

Obviously, the strategy of the Sûreté in fighting these drugs and their distributors has failed. What can Gamache do?

The answer comes to him as he brainstorms with his handpicked head of the homicide division. They must throw everything out, "burn the ships," and start over. And so they devise a bold plan that will likely get him and all of his lieutenants fired but one that may just work.

But then a little thing called murder rears its ugly head.

A woman who is visiting the village with friends is found dead, beaten by a baseball bat, in the cellar of the church. Before she is killed, the peace of the village had been disturbed for days by a figure in black robes and mask which simply stood on the village square and stared. A little research revealed it to be an incarnation of a Spanish figure called a cobrador, a figure representing conscience that was sent to extract retribution for an evil committed or, in modern times, a debt. Now the cobrador has disappeared and the body of the dead woman was found dressed in his costume.

Who had the cobrador meant to confront? Was it the woman who was killed? If so, what great evil had she committed, this architect who designed glass houses? Is the death somehow related to the traffic in drugs?

Penny has set up her plot to travel back and forth between the time of the murder (chilly November) and the time of the trial (in sweltering summer) for the person accused of the murder. It gets a bit mind-boggling and difficult to follow at times, but, on the whole it works.

What I found a bit more distracting was the frequent repetitions of conversations and interactions between colleagues and villagers meant to emphasize just what a kind, humane, strong, courageous, upright, just but merciful man Armand Gamache is. By now, we know that he is a paragon of virtue. We don't really need to have it shoved in our face on every second page.

Also, there is this animal that Armand and Reine-Marie have adopted which is so ugly and ungainly that no one can quite figure out what it is. Is it a dog or a pig or...? As an animal lover, I just found that irritating. Of course, it's a dog! Surely the great detective can figure that out!

These are minor quibbles, of course. Following along with Penny/Gamache as they explore the nature of evil and the role that conscience plays in combating it makes for a thoughtful and thought-provoking read. There is much to digest here and solving the murder is really secondary.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


  1. I'm glad that you really liked it despite those minor quibbles.

  2. I have not read Louise Penny yet. She is on the "someday list", a term my grandchildren coined when they were little.

    1. Her books are essentially cozy mysteries even though they feature police work, but she really explores ethics and moral sense. Her books always give me a lot to ponder.


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