In “A Better Man,” author Louise Penny shares the stories of several men, some of whom strive constantly to be better men, others who should be striving for betterment, although they are not. The main character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the main character in these novels, and he is a striking man. Not only does he command the respect of those he leads, he commands their affection and admiration.
However, a recent scandal has seen Gamache suspended, and when he was offered a demotion that his superiors were certain he would refuse, allowing them the satisfaction of having Gamache retired and out of their hair, he surprised everyone by accepting the position. In fact, readers quickly learn that Gamache is nothing if not humble. He is a man who wishes nothing more than to serve others and see that justice is met. He is kind to his fellow officers and those who follow his orders, and he asks nothing of them that he would not do. Gamache often thinks outside the box, and he always understands that the buck stops with him, and that his decisions are ultimately his responsibility.
It’s a responsibility that he carries like a weighted cloak. It sits on his shoulders, and while he carries it without complaint, it causes him sleepless nights, and it wears on his face like a steady stream of water eroding lines of worry into his forehead and cheeks. Other scars are evidence of his determination to protect the men and women he works with, and he literally puts his life on the line to help them. And they do the same for him.
While the books in the series before “A Better Man” are many, readers will pick up the relationship between the characters quickly, thanks to Penny’s fine writing. But the beauty of the small town setting, an idyllic small village named Three Pines for the three pines in the center of the quaint Québec town, will make readers want to know more about not only Gamache and his son-in-law and fellow officer, Jean-Guy, and the others, but also the inhabitants of the village, including the grouchy poet Ruth with her constant companion duck Rosa, and Clara, the brilliant artist who is currently struggling with her work.
In this story, Gamache has accepted a demotion, but for the two weeks until his son-in-law moves to Paris with Annie, Gamache’s daughter and their granddaughter, they both have the same position. It’s apparent that these men have an extremely close relationship as much because of their work together as their familial relationship. And when a pregnant woman is found murdered, and the distraught father demands justice, they both feel it hits a bit too close to home. Especially when Jean-Guy reveals that Annie is pregnant with what will be their second child.
Vivienne Godin has disappeared at a very inconvenient time. It’s spring, and the rivers in the province are higher than they’ve ever been. Even Gamache’s home town of Three Pines is in danger of being flooded. Between trying to keep the province and its inhabitants safe from floods, trying to help Homer Godin find out what happened to his daughter, and negotiating a fine line when his furious superiors find that a doctored video which shows Gamache killing young unarmed children is going viral, Gamache has his hands full.
Yet throughout the story he and those in his inner circle, Jean-Guy and Isabelle Lacoste, demonstrate their humanity, their basic decency, and their moral fortitude in every action they take. It’s enough to restore one’s faith in humankind, and that’s why these wonderfully touching mysteries have so many avid fans. We all want to believe that people like Gamache exist and care about truth and justice. And while we learn that even Gamache is not perfect — he has his moments of weakness — ultimately he follows his heart and his innate sense of decency to do the right thing.
It’s rare that any mystery writer can keep the suspense about “who done it” going until the end, but Penny’s writing is amazing. There are several credible possibilities as the murderer of Vivienne, including her abusive husband, a boyfriend, a jealous girlfriend and others. And most readers will truly not know until almost the very end which of these many suspects really committed the murder. There are twists and unexpected turns, and all is certainly not as it appeared to be at first in this superbly written tale of twisted family relationships. Readers will also feel positively honored that they have been allowed to see into the hearts and minds of Gamache and his posse.
Those who have not read any of the Gamache novels might do well starting at the beginning and working their way through the novels. Others who may not have the time to devote to all fifteen not-quick-read novels might enjoy jumping in with this one.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Minotaur Books, the publisher, for review purposes.