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Louise Penny.

  • Title: A Better Man
  • Author: Louise Penny
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Publisher: Raincoast
  • Pages: 448 pages

As Margaret Atwood pointed out nearly 50 years ago in Survival, Canada’s weather determines much about its culture. Louise Penny has always used the Quebec climate as a character, as well as a backdrop, in her superb Armand Gamache series of crime novels. A Better Man begins with a coming storm that may be rain, or sleet, or frozen rain, or snow, and it sets the tone:

“April in Quebec was a month of cruel contrasts. Of sublime afternoons sitting outside in the bright sunshine with a glass of wine, and then waking to another foot of snow. A month of muttered curses and mud-caked boots, and splattered cars, and dogs rolling, then shaking.”

Quebec writer Louise Penny on finding joy, coping with loss, and why her books aren’t ‘really’ about murder

The tumultuous weather serves to reinforce the tumult in the lives of the residents of Three Pines. Armand Gamache, formerly the chief superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, is returning from suspension. But he returns to a far inferior position, as second-in-command to his protégé and son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, head of homicide. The position was offered as an insult. The minister of justice wanted Gamache to refuse, take retirement, disappear. His battle against corruption in Quebec justice isn’t over yet. But Gamache knows that his reputation for honesty precedes him with the men he commands and he’d rather be with the cops than with the politicians.

Still, on the day of his return, the Twitterverse is alive with charges against him. He should be in prison, tried for murder, fired and worse. Gamache ignores the tweets but they play neatly into the hands of those who want him gone.

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A Better Man is the 15th book in the Gamache series.Handout

As Gamche’s life is changing, so is Jean-Guy’s. He has taken a job in Paris and will be leaving Quebec with his wife, Annie, and their son. When he goes, Gamache will take over as head of homicide but for now, the mentor is under the command of the mentee. When a missing-person case drops into the mix, Gamache takes it and heads out to see just what happened to Vivienne Godin, isolated, pregnant and now gone. Her father, Homer, insists that her violent abusive husband, Carl Tracey, has hidden or killed her. Sûreté du Québec has many more important cases to investigate but Homer Godin’s plea to Gamache is the father’s cri de coeur. “If it were your daughter what would you do?” Homer is convinced Carl killed Vivienne, and he wants more than justice: He wants revenge.

As Gamache attempts to unravel the mystery of Vivienne, there are upheavals in the placid world of Three Pines. The usually calm Bella Bella River is roiling, as the spring runoff melts and then freezes, causing ice jams and floods. The river is at the edge of the village and fire chief Ruth Zardo – a poet with a pet duck – has a moment of complete command calling for the whole village to assemble for sandbagging. Meanwhile, the inhabitants take stock of their situation. In the case of evacuation, what to take? Artist Clara Morrow, has just been savaged by critics over her recent show of miniatures. Should she leave them behind and save only her “good” older works? Or abandon the lot? Then a body turns up in the river.

A Better Man is the 15th book in the Gamache series, a point where many authors lose interest in characters who’ve worn out their charms. (Agatha Christie famously grew to hate Hercule Poirot’s eccentricities.) Some writers introduce whole new series, others, usually unsuccessfully, kill central characters off. Penny knows her legion of fans won’t permit Gamache and Three Pines to die or change so she has shrewdly created fresh opportunities for both. Gamache will take on his new job with a new deputy after Jean-Guy departs. He also has a new senior to report to and there’s an interesting addition to the gaggle of artists/locals in the village as well.

This isn’t Penny’s best book in this series. There are too many references to “if it were your daughter” and the ruse used to get Homer to Three Pines is simply silly. But that said, as a transition to a new set of stories and plot lines, A Better Man works. There is a twist at the end that will not please some readers but it is in character and manages to take us from the mud and snow of early April to the promise of better days and better men to come.

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