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Book facts
How the Light Gets In
by Louise Penny
405 pages, $25.99

Epic forces guide mysteries great and small

This is a mystery worth staying home for. You’ll want to savor “How the Light Gets In,” the ninth in Louise Penny’s extraordinary series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and troubled sidekick, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete du Quebec.

Penny has been working throughout her series to tap into the spiritual dimensions of the genre. Her formula has evolved into one part foul play, two parts morality play. In “How the Light Gets In,” she gets her proportions just right: There’s an epic conspiracy at the center of this tale – a battle between the forces of good and evil - the likes of which hasn’t been seen since “Paradise Lost.”

When the story begins, many things are cracked indeed, foremost among them the once-close relationship between Gamache and Beauvoir. Beauvoir has gone over to the dark side: He has transferred into the command of Gamache’s arch-rival, Chief Superintendent Francoeur, a manipulator who’s never met a scruple he couldn’t ignore. Francoeur is intent on taking over the Surete, but only as the first step in a far-reaching, more nefarious plan that Gamache and a skeleton crew of loyal police allies are working furiously to comprehend.

Less cosmic puzzles also demand Gamache’s attention: An elderly woman is found murdered. She turns out to be the last surviving member of the Ouellet quintuplets, five sisters who had been born in the Great Depression. (Penny lifts liberally here from the real-life story of the Dionne quintuplets.) Another narrative thread involves the possible suicide of a middle-aged government worker who appears to have jumped off a bridge to her death. All these events, as you might expect, turn out to be connected.

What a reader can’t anticipate, however, is the outcome of the titanic contest between the bloody-but-unbowed Gamache and the cunning Francoeur, who’s stacked the Surete with his minions. The apocalyptic clash between the forces of the two men takes place in the isolated village of Three Pines (the setting of some previous Gamache adventures) – an Internet “dead zone,” a settlement out of time, consisting of a few houses and stores and a high population of eccentrics. It is there, in the middle of the snowy woods, that a quick moment of grace happens.

Penny’s voice – occasionally amused, yet curiously formal – is what makes the world of her novels plausible. I can think of few other writers who could sidestep cuteness in a scene that features an elderly female poet and her pet duck. Gamache is our fixed moral center as always, but one who is increasingly bedeviled by doubts. During a potentially violent confrontation in police headquarters, he realizes he has been completely ostracized by the officers around him. We’re told:

“Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed that light would banish the shadows. ... He believed that evil had its limits. But looking at the young men and women staring at him now, who’d seen something terrible about to happen and had done nothing, Chief Inspector Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. Maybe the darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits.”

Gamache – and Penny – clearly respect the power of evil too much to ask these questions merely rhetorically. Penny has written a magnificent mystery that appeals not only to the head, but also to the heart and soul.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University. She wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.