I became acquainted with the genius of Louise Penny when I read in 2012 her debut novel, Still Life, published in 2005. Back then, I wrote for myself this response to her writing: Remarkable in that the spirit outranks the letter. Author stands at the portal to organic writing.
The ensuing years have brought forth eleven more novels penned by Penny, and now, with the creation of Glass Houses, her thirteenth novel, she stands in the vestibule of organic writing, which evolves without intellectual prodding. There's plenty of this prodding in the production of this murder mystery, but the organic nature lifts from the pages near the middle of the book. There rapture awaits the reader who is keen in engaging the spirit of the story. The following four sentences from page 184 of the hardcover offer a taste of this rapture:
"[Chief Superintendent] Armand Gamache walked through the late afternoon darkness. The lights from the cottages were made soft by the mist that still hung over the village. Three Pines felt slightly out of focus. Not quite of this world."
Three Pines is on the map if you've been there; otherwise, it does not exist.
Louise Penny builds her mystery with the help of glass houses, a baseball bat, the novel Lord of the Flies, the phrase "burn our ships," Mahatma Gandhi's higher court of the conscience, lesbianism, an old poet demented with insight, and the Spanish cobrador, who collects debts. Penny, in pushing to the beyond, infuses "cobrador" with a higher meaning: "conscience."
How the cobrador as conscience plays out in the story is done well. Penny's cobrador wears a black costume and mask. Three Pines, located near Montreal and the border with the United States, is the center of the story, and it is here that the cobrador appears and stands mute on the village green. This sinister presence causes a stir in the village. A lot of questions are raised, with the most basic of them—what is it doing here?—leading into the intrigue.
Chief Superintendent Gamache was the first to confront the cobrador. The entity did not move, it did not speak. If the narrator would have given Gamache the opportunity to assess the height of the cobrador and detect the scent, if any, of the person hidden by black, the intrigue would have been put at risk. Sherlock Holmes with the help of his narrator would have taken this opportunity and damn the intrigue, but Holmes could have no place in this mystery because he favors the letter in solving a crime whereas Gamache favors the spirit.
Louise Penny creates in Glass Houses an enjoyable read by creating symbols, even of the murder victim and Three Pines itself, and by keeping the reader close to Armand Gamache, whose conscience is on trial.
The murder mystery intersects later with a search for the leader of a drug cartel. Is that culprit the murderer?
By the end of the story, the reader may be thinking that Louise Penny, the conscience for Glass Houses, is her own hero, Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache, the conscience for a world hidden from the world.