This week I am giving you an extended quote from one of my favorite mystery writers, Louise Penny, who describes what it means to be a near enemy. It is a very intriguing idea and I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. The setting is a cafe where Gamache, the chief homicide detective is having a discussion with Myrna, a local psychologist, about how two opposite emotions masquerade as the same thing. She is speaking here of a grocer whose wife died.  Enjoy, Janet

 Near Enemies

“When his wife died, he opened his store the next day. Is he brave, or are we seeing the near enemy?”

“The what?”

“The near enemy. It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other’s sick, twisted.”

Gamache put his glass down. The condensation made his fingers slightly wet. Or was it the sweat that had suddenly appeared on his palms? The noises of the storm, the rain and hail pounding frantically on the window, the conversation and laughter inside the bistro receded.

He leaned forward and spoke, his voice low. “Can you give me an example?”

“There are three couplings,” said Myrna, herself leaning forward now, and whispering though she didn’t know why. “Attachment masquerades as Love, Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.”

Armand Gamache was quiet for a moment, looking into Myrna’s eyes, trying to divine from them the deeper meaning of what she’d just said. There was a deeper meaning, he knew it. Something important had just been said.

But he hadn’t understood it fully. His eyes drifted to the fireplace while Myrna leaned back in her overstuffed chair and swirled her red wine in its bulbous glass.

“I don’t understand,” Gamache said finally, bringing his eyes back to Myrna. “Can you explain?”

Myrna nodded. “Pity and compassion are the easiest to understand. Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior.”

“But it’s hard to tell one from the other,” Gamache nodded.

“Exactly. Even for the person feeling it. Almost everyone would claim to be full of compassion. It’s one of the noble emotions. But really, it’s pity they feel.”

“So pity is the near enemy of compassion,” Said Gamache slowly, mulling it over.

“That’s right. It looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it. And as long as pity’s in place there’s not room for compassion. It destroys, squeezes out, the nobler emotion.”

“Because we fool ourselves into believing we’re feeling one, when we’re actually feeling the other.”

“Fool ourselves, and fool others,” said Myrna.


“And love and attachment?” asked Gamache.

“Mothers and children are classic examples. Some mothers see their job as preparing their kids to live in the big old world. To be independent, to marry and have children of their own. To live wherever they choose and do what makes them happy. That’s love. Others, and we all see them, cling to their children. Move to the same city, the same neighborhood. Live through them. Stifle them. Manipulate, use guilt-trips, cripple them.”

“Cripple them? How?”

“By not teaching them to be independent.”

“But it’s not just mothers and children,” said Gamache.

“No, it’s friendships, marriages. Any intimate relationship. Love wants the best for others. Attachment takes hostages.”

Gamache nodded. He’s seen his share of those. Hostages weren’t allowed to escape, and when they tried tragedy followed.


“And the last?” He leaned forward again. “What was it?”

“Equanimity and indifference. I think that’s the worst of the near enemies, the most corrosive. Equanimity is balance. When something overwhelming happens in our lives we feel it strongly but we also have an ability to overcome it. You must have seen it. People who somehow survive the loss of a child or a spouse. As a psychologist I saw it all the time. Unbelievable grief and sorrow. But deep down inside people find a core. That’s called equanimity. An ability to accept things and move on.”

Gamache nodded. He’d been deeply affected by families who’d risen above the murder of a loved one. Some had even been able to forgive.

“How’s that like indifference?” he asked, not seeing the connection.

“Think about it. All those stoic people. Stiff upper lip. Calm in the face of tragedy. And some really are that brave. But some,” she lowered her voice even more, “are psychotic. They just don’t feel pain. And you know why?”

Gamache was silent. Beside him the storm threw itself against the leaded glass as though desperate to interrupt their conversation. Hail hammered the glass and snow plastered itself there, blotting out the village beyond until it felt as though he and Myrna were in a world all of their own.

“They don’t care about others. They don’t feel like the rest of us. They’re like the Invisible man, wrapped in the trappings of humanity, but beneath there’s emptiness.”

Gamache felt his own skin grow cold and he knew goose bumps had sprung up on his arms under his jacket.

“The problem is telling one from another,” Myrna whispered, straining to keep an eye on the grocer. “People with equanimity are unbelievably brave. They absorb the pain, feel it fully, and let it go. And you know what?”

“What?” Gamache whispered.

“They look exactly like people who don’t care at all, who are indifferent. Cool, calm and collected. We revere it. But who’s brave, and who’s the near enemy?”

Gamache leaned back in his seat, warmed by the fire. The enemy, he knew then, was near.


Excerpted from The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny