A Better Man: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
“Louise Penny is convincing proof that a Canadian setting, Canadian characters, and the Canadian point of view represent a deep, rich stratum in contemporary crime fiction that cannot, should not, must not be overlooked.”
Louise Penny is a giant in the world of crime fiction, a perennial New York Times bestseller and a winner of countless awards, and with the publication of her 15th Chief Inspector Gamache title, A Better Man, she further extends her legend.
Armand Gamache has returned to work with the Sûreté du Québec after a traumatic firefight in a previous adventure caused him to be demoted and suspended.
He finds himself assigned once again to homicide, but this time subordinate to his son-in-law and former second in command, Chief Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir. The public vigorously objects to his reinstatement, some of the younger Sûreté agents are like-minded, and the situation is awkward all around.
As the April thaw takes a nasty turn and the rivers of Québec reach flood levels, the Rivière Bella Bella must be sandbagged in order to protect the tiny village of Three Pines from disaster. As Gamache and his neighbors prepare for the worst, they are informed that a young woman from a nearby isolated property has gone missing.
Beauvoir reluctantly asks him to look into it, and Gamache accepts, glad to have a case on which to focus his attention. When the woman’s body is found in the swollen river after an altercation at a rotting old bridge upstream, the investigation quickly focuses on her husband—an unpleasant, heavy-drinking ceramicist with a history of spousal abuse and an obvious desire to rid himself of a wife he no longer loves. Can they find the evidence to prove he’s guilty of murder?
A Better Man once again features Penny’s cast of local characters, including artist Clara Morrow, drunk and disorderly poet Ruth Zardo, bookseller Myrna Landers, and Reine-Marie Gamache, Armand’s wife. This time the spotlight falls on Clara, who has unwisely chosen to paint a series of miniatures currently receiving horrendously negative reviews.
Penny walks a tightrope over cozy territory with these characters and the quaint rural Québec setting of Three Pines. She takes a risk playing them off against the police procedural elements that dominate when Gamache and his Sûreté colleagues pursue their investigation, but she’s too good a writer to slip and fall. She uses these local characters to create brief, resonant moments of insight into the human condition, her true object of study.
For example, when the father of the murdered young woman hides in a room in Gamache’s house, unwilling to talk to anyone, Ruth comes to the locked door and quotes something she tells him St. Francis said to a woman who’d lost her child in a river: “Clare, Clare, do not despair. Between the bridge and the water, I was there.” Unexpectedly, she shows herself as a character who truly can speak with the voice of a poet.
Other, briefer brush strokes also jump off the page. Early in the novel, when new readers are adjusting to the character of Gamache and deciding whether or not to become interested in him, she offers this descriptive note:
“He always wore a suit and tie, a crisp white shirt, as he did today. Even in the field. As a sign of respect for victim and family. And as a symbol of order in the face of the chaos that threatened.”
Most definitely, those of us who also like to wear suits and crisp white shirts can only smile and nod at having had their importance to us articulated so well.
Penny has a very distinctive writing style that first-time readers should be aware of—short paragraphs, frequent use of sentence fragments, repetitiveness. Sometimes it feels as though she’s assembling her thoughts from pieces of modeling clay, one chunk at a time.
Take her description of Gamache at the beginning of Chapter Two:
“His complexion was that of someone who’d spent hours in open fields, in damp forests, in knee-deep snow, staring at bodies. And tracking down those who’d made them.
“He had the appearance of someone who’d spent years shouldering heavy responsibility. Weighing dreadful choices.
“The lines down his face spoke of determination. Of concentration. Of worry spread over years. And sorrow. Spread over decades.”
This uneven rhythm takes some getting used to, and it may be a little off-putting to readers looking for a smoother, more polished style of prose, but it’s part of what makes this author so successful at what she does. It conveys a thoughtfulness, a willingness to examine a situation from multiple angles, and a Clara-like uncertainty as to how the whole thing might be received.
The author has little to worry about, however, on that score. A Better Man is a worthy addition to the Chief Inspector Gamache series, and her fans will love it.
At the same time, readers in general should consider that perhaps Canadian crime fiction authors are capable of writing in a noirish, atmospheric vein just as well as, if not better than, the best of their Scandinavian counterparts.
Louise Penny is convincing proof that a Canadian setting, Canadian characters, and the Canadian point of view represent a deep, rich stratum in contemporary crime fiction that cannot, should not, must not be overlooked.