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It’s a Mystery: “The only species that is dangerous to humans is other humans”

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The Nature of the Beastnatureofthebeast
By Louise Penny
Minotaur, 2015

Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
Minotaur, 2015

Woman of the Dead
By Bernhard Aichner
Translated by Anthea Bell
Scribner, 2015

It is mid-September in Three Pines, the idyllic village just over the Canadian border, where Armand Gamache, the former Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, has retired. As the 11th Gamache novel, The Nature of the Beast, begins, he and his wife Reine-Marie are having drinks with their weekend guest, Isabelle Lacoste, Gamache’s successor. She is trying to persuade her ex-boss to come out of retirement. She knows he’s been approached by Chief Superintendent Thérèse Brunel to head up the division that oversees Homicide and Serious Crimes. The overture had come from Brunel several weeks before during a “social visit.” As he told Reine-Marie:

“It’s too soon I think…. But Thérèse has raised an interesting question. What next?”

…now had bled into next…. Next was on the horizon slouching towards them.

Then Laurent Lepage, a 9-year-old with a penchant for telling tall tales, turns up dead under circumstances that Gamache finds suspicious and it sends all thoughts of next to the back burner. The death follows hard on the boy’s latest far-fetched—and disbelieved—tale of having found a humongous gun with a winged monster on it in the woods. Laurent’s body had been thrown in a gully, his bicycle nearby. Something about the placement of the body is all wrong. More importantly Laurent’s stick is missing. It was like a third arm to the boy. He was never without it. Gamache knows in his gut that this is no accident.

To find the stick, he lines up a search party that includes his former second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is now Chief Inspector Lacoste’s right hand. Knowing what the boy meant to Gamache, Beauvoir has driven down from Montreal with the preliminary report on Laurent’s death. Beauvoir married Gamache’s daughter Annie last year and has all but kicked the addictions that plagued him for so long. The men’s relationship, which has weathered more than its share of upheavals, has been on track since The Long Way Home from 2014.

On the second day of scouring the forest, they uncover a massive artillery device, a giant missile launcher pointing toward the U.S. And carved on it is a monster rearing up with seven heads on long serpentine necks springing from the body. Riding the monster is a woman. Gamache cannot take his eyes off the image. It is a reference to the book of Revelation. The woman is the Whore of Babylon, the Antichrist, heading for Armageddon. Gamache and Beauvoir take no comfort in learning that the boy was not exaggerating. To both men it’s clear that the boy was murdered to keep the weapon a secret:

It took a certain kind of person to kill a child. Chief Inspector Gamache had tracked a few of them down in his long career. Fighting to find the murderer, but also fighting to keep his own repugnance, his own rage at bay. Fighting to keep the thought of his own children out of an already complex and volatile mix.

That was the problem. They were the most difficult murderers to find, not simply because if they were willing to kill a child, they were willing to do anything, but also because the emotions of the family, the witnesses, the friends, the public and the investigators were heightened. Volcanic. It could obscure the truth, warp perceptions.

And that gave the murderer a huge advantage.

It was also the kind of murder that could pull a community apart.

Acutely aware of this, Lacoste and Beauvoir set up shop in Three Pines. The team, with Gamache “unofficially” on board, begins to delve into all the questions arising from this behemoth/monster’s existence. Why was it hidden? Who in the world built it? What was it really meant for?

Then, much to Gamache’s horror, John Fleming, a heinous criminal from his past, rears his ugly head with a connection to the weapon. He is a serial killer locked away for eighteen years in a facility for the criminally insane. His most sadistic acts Gamache has never revealed to another living soul—not even Reine-Marie. The Fleming link adds an even darker dimension to the instrument of destruction that confronts them.

The inimitable Penny has fashioned a novel with global scope, spanning decades and implicating many in Gamache’s always compelling coterie. She is a virtuoso when it comes to laying bare the deepest secrets her multi-textured characters harbor. The Nature of the Beast is a spellbinding puzzle, equal parts mystery, morality tale and conundrum.

jadedragonmountainAs an ardent fan of Louise Penny, I was pleased by her pre-pub review of Jade Dragon Mountain, calling it “an amazing book—truly wonderful. …Elsa Hart and her protagonist, Li Du, deserve a place in every collection.” This is an elegant debut novel that enchants us from the very beginning, when the exiled imperial librarian Li Du arrives in the city of Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border. It is 1708, five years since Li Du was banished from Beijing for innocently consorting with traitors. Now an itinerant scholar—“I am more content when I am traveling. It is not my habit to remain long in any city”—he has come upon Dayan where his cousin Tulishen is imperial magistrate.

Li appears before Tulishen, as he’s required to do, “to register my presence upon arrival in a new prefecture.” This done, Li wants nothing more than to be on his way. He has learned that It is barely a week before the Kangxi Emperor responsible for Li’s exile will arrive for the triumphant conclusion of his year-long progress through the Qing empire. What is more, the Emperor has announced that he will cause a solar eclipse on the day of his arrival. By his command, there will be a great festival to celebrate the eclipse. Hordes of foreigners have descended upon the city. It becomes immediately obvious to Li that for Tulishen hosting the festivities is a source of great anxiety—particularly since the Emperor’s entourage includes a contingent of Jesuits that are Tulishen’s responsibility:

Members of the intellectual elite, of which Li Du and Tulishen numbered, were aware that for many years it had been the Jesuits at court who had provided the Emperor with a yearly calendar of astronomical events. Their calculations had proven reliable and accurate to the minute. Naturally, public acknowledgment of their role was forbidden as it would tarnish the pageantry of the Emperor’s predictions.

It had fallen to Tulishen to organize the unprecedented event in an area known throughout China only for its disease and barbarism. He would be blamed if the Emperor were disappointed.

Tulishen requests that Li stay and sort out what the foreigners are up to. Of course, the request is actually an order. Li assures himself that it is only for a few days. He barely gets a few hours before Brother Pieter, an elderly Jesuit astronomer who had attached himself to the household, is found poisoned. Everyone except Li Du is eager to have the death written off as natural. Li goes at the investigation tenaciously. Incurring Tulishen’s wrath. He ignores diplomacy in his pursuit of truth.

He turns out to be a remarkable detective. He is highly observant and astonishingly prescient when it comes to ferreting out evidence. He is almost unwittingly assisted by Hamza, a storyteller of dubious origin, who spins dark tales. Li doesn’t lack for suspects, and Hamza is among them. There is the exquisite, inscrutable Lady Chen who serves as the magistrate’s first consort (he has a number of wives in Beijing). Also, a Jesuit botanist with a hidden agenda, an embittered old servant, and an English representative of the East India Company eager for trade deals. Add Tulishen’s young secretary, who is a little too accomplished for his own good. Finally, Li can’t leave out Tulishen. Needless to say, it takes more than a few plot twists for Li to solve the case. And it’s a solution worthy of Judge Dee, the detective who was to ancient China what Sherlock Holmes is to us.

Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain takes us into an exotic, unfamiliar world. She skillfully navigates the web of connections attendant upon the internecine court politics of the time. She spins her multilayered tale delicately like silk strands in an intricately woven tapestry. It’s a completely captivating debut.

womanofthedeadFor a total change of pace, consider Bernhard Aichner’s Woman of the Dead, a grisly revenge saga set in Innsbruck, Austria. Brünhilde Blum is the adopted daughter of two parents from hell, Hagen and Herta owners of Blum Funerary Institute:

Unloving parents. A silent mother who never hugged or kissed her, and a father who made her do things no child should ever have to do. …She’d been made to lay out the dead since she was seven.

Eight years ago her parents drowned in a boating accident while she lay on the deck ignoring their cries for help. Unusually resilient because of her unspeakable childhood, Blum sheds her hated first name and begins a new life on her own terms. Now she is happily married to Mark a respected police officer and is the doting mother of two little girls, Uma and Nela. She has modernized the Institute and is flourishing as a successful undertaker. Then one morning as she is watching Mark go off to work on his motorcycle, a large black car comes out of nowhere, runs Mark over and speeds away.

At first Blum is paralyzed with grief, but she channels it for the sake of her girls. She forces herself to work each day and finally summons up the courage to go into Mark’s study where she discovers evidence that Mark’s death was no accident. She opens the file on his phone that contains all his saved conversations. After listening to a series of his interviews with a young immigrant woman named Dunya, Blum knows that his death is linked to his investigation into this young woman’s experience as a sex slave:

Twenty conversations with a woman whose experiences are unimaginable. Conversations that Blum should never have heard…. They met over a period of two weeks. Their last meeting was on the day before the accident.

Except that it wasn’t an accident. Blum knows that she must find Dunya. Against all odds she finally tracks Dunya down and manages to get her to open up. The story she tells is like a horror film about five men imprisoning her and two others for five years:

Five men. The photographer, the priest, the huntsman, the cook and the clown. Dunya has described each of them. The photographer tied Dunya down to the table and raped her, taking photographs all the time. If she turned her head away he hit her.

As it turns out, these evil men are notable figures in the local community. Blum vows to track them down and exact revenge on Dunya’s abusers and Mark’s killer. She is the avenging angel hell bent on making them pay painfully for what they have done. Not for the faint of heart, Blum’s retribution is swift and uncompromising.

Bernard Aichner’s Woman of the Dead is a brutally intense thriller. It’s as compelling as it is unsettling, with a thoroughly satisfying double whammy ending.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.