54 pages 1 hour read

Louise Penny

The Brutal Telling

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


The Brutal Telling (2009) by Louise Penny is a murder mystery that explores what it means to be human, how we use art, and the power of community. It follows Sûreté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of detectives as they investigate the murder of an unknown man in the quiet village of Three Pines outside of Montreal. This murder investigation takes Gamache and his team through the history of art theft as well as the history of the Haida people on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and reveals many secrets kept by some of the village’s most beloved characters.

The Brutal Telling is the fifth novel in Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. It was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Agatha Award for Best Traditional Mystery in 2009, among other accolades.

This guide is based on the Minotaur Books Amazon Kindle edition (2009).

Content Warning: The Brutal Telling includes murder and mentions psychological abuse, animal abuse, and anti-gay bias.

Plot Summary

Olivier Brulé owns a bistro, a bed-and-breakfast, and a bookshop in the quiet village of Three Pines. He and his partner, Gabri Dubeau, are beloved members of the Three Pines community. When a dead body is found in Olivier’s bistro, a secret he held close for years threatens to reveal itself.

Sûreté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called back to Three Pines, along with his investigative team, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and Isabelle Lacoste. A young officer named Paul Morin volunteers to join them. Though Jean Guy and Isabelle laugh off this young, inexperienced officer, Gamache sees potential in him. The team determines that the murder victim is unknown throughout the village and that he was killed by a blow to the head. At first, Gamache is certain the man is unhoused, but laboratory results prove that the victim was clean and healthy.

A new family, the Gilberts, have moved into the old Hadley house in Three Pines, the site of a murder investigation Gamache oversaw years ago. Marc Gilbert, his wife, Dominique, and his mother, Carole, are eager to join the quiet community of Three Pines. They’ve hired Roar Parra to help them clear the woods around the home and renovate the Hadley house into a modern luxury spa. Olivier is threatened by their business, and he and Marc butt heads. Gamache begins his questioning with Olivier, then moves on to the Gilberts. When Gamache and his team figure out that Marc used paraffin in his home—the wax substance was also found on the victim’s clothing—Marc admits he was the first to find the victim. Marc came across the victim’s body in his home and moved it to Olivier’s bistro to avoid police suspicion and place blame on Olivier. Gamache orders a search of every house and business in Three Pines to look for signs of blood.

Dominique Gilbert takes her horse around the forest and comes across a deserted cabin. Inside the cabin, she finds blood. Gamache determines that this cabin is the site of the murder. The victim had been hoarding artifacts—art, first-edition books, and even a piece of the famous Amber Room. There is also a fishing line woven to look like a spider’s web reading the word “woo,” as well as a slab of wood carved with the word “woo.”

Gamache must identify the murderer and victim, and figure out what the victim was doing in a secluded cabin with valuable items. He employs the aid of Thérèse Brunel, an expert in stolen art. She is astounded by the cabin and starts researching the stolen art’s owners. The cabin’s wood carvings are inscribed nonsensically in the Roman alphabet. They depict a joyful yet frightening subject: the exodus of a community hopeful for their future, and one young man clutching a package, fearfully looking behind them.

Meanwhile, Marc Gilbert’s father, Vincent—whom Marc had long thought dead—appears in Three Pines. Vincent is a famous doctor who gave up his medical career to write a book about spirituality. Marc is shaken by the ongoing murder investigation and the reappearance of his long-lost father. Gamache finds it suspicious that Vincent has reappeared so soon after the murder.

Gamache has a talent for reading people and can tell Olivier is not being transparent. Olivier once owned an antiques shop in Three Pines, which makes Gamache all the more certain that Olivier knows something about the cabin filled with antiquities. When he questions Olivier again, Olivier admits he knew the victim, whom he calls the Hermit. Olivier met the Hermit many years ago through an antiques deal. As the Hermit became more secluded, Olivier brought him groceries. In return, the Hermit offered antiques, and Olivier sold them through private dealers. This enriched Olivier, but as Gamache points out, he should have alerted the authorities to the Hermit’s suspicious collection. Olivier admits that on the night of the murder, he had been with the Hermit. He found the Hermit dead in his cabin but, fearful that the police would link the murder to him, moved the Hermit to Marc Gilbert’s house to ruin his reputation. The village of Three Pines is shocked by Olivier’s duplicity but stands by him because he has always been a good friend and neighbor to them.

Meanwhile, Thérèse has tracked down other wood carvings similar to the ones found in the cabin. Laboratory testing on the carvings determine that the carvings are made from red cedar wood, specifically from the Queen Charlotte Islands. Gamache is certain there is a link between the Hermit’s murder and the carvings. Thérèse’s husband, Jérôme, is a master at cracking codes and suggests that the carvings can be decoded through the Caesar’s Shift cipher if Gamache knows the key word.

Olivier claims he didn’t know the Hermit’s name but suspected a Czech accent, as their area of Quebec has a large Czech community. Gamache revisits Roar Parra and his son, Havoc, as suspects. However, new lab results point back to Olivier. The police search Olivier’s bistro again and find a canvas bag with another wood carving, as well as a priceless menorah with the victim’s blood—the murder weapon. Because Olivier had been profiting from the Hermit’s antiques, he didn’t want the Hermit to make other connections. He knew the Hermit was hiding from something, but over time, the Hermit craved community. Olivier told the Hermit a terrifying story: In this story, a Mountain King nurtures a young boy who, as a young man, learns about a land where no one dies or falls ill. The young man encourages his village to travel to this land. However, the young man steals a package from the Mountain King before leaving. Throughout the villagers’ journey, the young man is in constant fear of the Mountain King, who is chasing him with the forces of chaos. While Olivier told this story, the Hermit muttered “woo, woo.” Because the story echoed the Hermit’s own possession of stolen items, he was convinced to stay in his cabin and rely on Olivier. On the night of the murder, Olivier found the Hermit dead, moved the body, and took the menorah.

Gamache has his own theory about the Hermit: He believes the Hermit escaped Czechoslovakia during a time of political upheaval and brought artifacts entrusted to him by other Czech people who were hopeful of becoming refugees in Canada. Instead, the Hermit kept these treasures for himself. Olivier insists he didn’t murder the Hermit, but the evidence points to him. Gamache is devastated because Olivier is a friend, but ultimately, Olivier is arrested and put on trial. He suspects the murder was an accident born of desperation and anxiety.

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