You are going to see at least two more reviews related to books in this series in short succession, because I was camping last weekend & read a total of three of them.
For many years, mysteries were my go to genre. That changed in probably 2011, when I started reading a lot of romance. I've really become a cross-genre reader in the last four years or so. Prior to that, it was mostly literary fiction, and if I read genre, it was mostly mysteries. I had heard a lot of really good things about this series, and had been mildly impressed by the first three books, but I was not overwhelmed.
I am now.
I feel like this is a really slow burn series. Honestly, this fourth book in the series is still hitting its stride, and that it really takes off in books 5 and 6. I wouldn't recommend skipping books in the series, because the character development is key to understanding and enjoying the books, but I feel like the author took the series to a whole new level starting at book 5.
This is a very nuanced and layered group of characters. Set in Quebec, Penny is digging into the underbelly of a community that externally looks like it does not have one. Three Pines is an idyllic place, set out of time - one of the quirks of the books is that it is basically unplottable, and is not contained on any maps, (although it must be the per capita murder capital of Quebec) and what looks like limitless forest according to cartographers. Getting there requires the assistance of someone who knows where it is - google directions doesn't know it exists. She describes an imagined place, from a television show that hearkens back to a golden age, where porches are broad, flower gardens are in bloom, and bistros are affordable, delicious, and everyone in town congregates there. Like Stars Hollow, but with more Canadians, less snark and a much higher body count.
A Rule Against Murder is actually not set in Three Pines, but rather is set at a grand hotel deep in the Canadian woods. Gamache is there with his beloved wife for an anniversary weekend, alongside a family reunion attended by the most miserable collection of blood relations in North America. There is a murder, it is puzzling and inexplicable, and Gamache solves it.
But that isn't the point of this book, or this series. The murder is almost always nearly beside the point, a vehicle for Penny to probe and poke her characters until one of them reflexively lashes out in violence. Her point, and it is a valid point, is that anyone can be pushed past their breaking point by greed or anger or fear or love, and when that happens, someone dies.
A Rule Against Murder isn't my favorite of the series. The means for murder is clever, but convoluted and unlikely to succeed. The real meat of this installment is in the family relationships that are dissected by Penny - the way that some mothers will eat their own young, the fraught nature of sibling relationships when competition for affection is encouraged, even accidentally, by parents. The way that love can develop into hate despite bonds of blood that are supposed to encourage tenderness.
This book, too, gives a great deal of insight into Gamache by exploring his relationship with his deceased father, Honore, precipitated by his son's decision to name his impending child Honore if it is a boy. Gamache is a fascinating character, so thoughtful that sometimes he appears immobile, but with a mind that is always processing. Deeply honorable, and brave, but not showy.
This is a book about how the shadow of the past sometimes lies over the present, and how some wounds do not and cannot heal. They may scab over, but eventually something will happen to tear the scab off, and the infection, previously unseen, will erupt, poisoning everything that comes into contact with it.