Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
A BETTER MAN. By Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 437 pages. $28.99.
Some critics are calling this, the 15th in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, one of her best. Others are pointing out what they consider minor weaknesses and saying maybe A Better Man isn’t quite up to Penny’s highest standards.
My take? There are legitimate arguments to be made about which of Penny’s Gamache novels are best, but they are all superb. Read A Better Man, savor it, and then, if you want, go back and re-read some of the others to compare. What’s not to enjoy about that?
As fans know, Penny’s novels go far beyond the genres they might loosely fit into. Gamache is with the Surete du Quebec, the provincial police force, but although there are intriguing cases, complex plot twists and a good deal of suspense, these books are more than police procedurals or mystery/thrillers.
Much of the setting is the somewhat remote village of Three Pines where Gamache and his wife life, along with a now-familiar cast of eccentric neighbors. Penny offers colorful characters, evocative descriptions of village life in a sometimes-harsh natural environment and a fair amount of humor along with the crimes, but these books are more than cozy mysteries.
That “more” includes telling glimpses into the minds and hearts of Gamache and other major characters, and through them, profound insights into the human condition. Gamache and his colleagues, including his son-in-law and former protégé, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, deal with some very ugly, violent situations and evil people, as well as otherwise decent people who make bad choices.
They have to make difficult decisions, ones that can cost people their lives. As the series progresses, it grows darker, but it also reveals the light that emanates from the good that is still in the world, and especially in people such as Gamache.
As this book opens, though, a lot of people in Quebec apparently don’t believe there’s anything worthwhile about Armand Gamache. He’s the subject of virulent attacks on Twitter, with many detractors insisting he should be in prison rather than returning to his old job as head of the homicide department. Gamache had pursued a risky strategy to topple the people behind the growing illicit drug trade, and, although ultimately successful in the grand scheme of things, he’s become a political scapegoat in the midst of the fallout. Removed in disgrace from his post as chief superintendent of the Surete, Gamache has been offered his previous job in homicide because those in power figured he’d retire rather than take a step back.
They were wrong, and his return is complicated by the fact that for the first several weeks he’ll be in the new job, he’ll be working with – or for – Jean-Guy, who is about to take Gamache’s daughter and grandson off to a new, safer life in France.
Meanwhile, the capricious Canadian spring weather is threatening Three Pines, as the river begins to rise dangerously.
Meanwhile, Clara Morrow, a friend in Three Pines who recently earned success as an artist after many years in obscurity, finds herself also the victim of a storm of abuse on social media. Her latest project has been so thoroughly trashed that people are questioning the worth of her earlier works.
In the midst of all this, Gamache’s attention is drawn to the case of a missing young woman. Her father is convinced her abusive husband has harmed or killed her, and Gamache has trouble separating his own paternal feelings from his judgment in the investigation.
Amid the threatening floods, the relentless Twitter abuse, political machinations and family dynamics, Gamache, Jean-Guy and their colleagues are trying to find the missing woman – and, after her body is found, trying to bring her killer to justice. Most everyone is sure the husband is guilty, but are emotions clouding their vision?This is a fine addition to an outstanding series. And, with new developments in various lives and careers, Penny has laid the groundwork for keeping the series fresh. Here’s to more Gamache novels, and more debate about which is be