Reviews by L. J. Roberts

LOUISE PENNY – A Better Man. Armand Gamache #15. Minotaur Books, hardcover, August 2019; trade paperback, June 2020. St. Martin’s, mass market paperback, June 2020.

First Sentence: “Merde.”

   Inspector Armand Gamache may be bruised by the events of the past, but he is not beaten. He may no longer have the authority he once did, as evidenced by those in charge ignoring his recommendation to keep citizens safe from the rising river waters due to torrential rains, but he still has the respect of the team who once reported to him, and of his son-in-law and temporary superior, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. A fellow officer is concerned about the disappearance of her close friend’s daughter who, she suspects, is in an abusive relationship. Being assigned to lead the investigation brings Armand into the triple dangers of an angry man, his father-in-law, and nature.

   Let’s get this out of the way; the book begins with profanity. However, considering the situation for both artist Clara, whose career is at a crossroads, and the team in the Serious Crimes Unit, it is well justified and nothing more than most of us have said.

   Whether it’s a bistro in Three Pines, a conference room in the Sûreté du Québec, or standing by a raging river, Penny draws one in and makes one feel present in the environment and in the community of people associated with each. Even for those who may be discovering Penny with this book, her writing, and inclusion of just enough back story, makes one feel welcome and up to date with the people and situations.

   Penny’s descriptions aren’t merely visual, they are emotional and anthropomorphic— “The waters were rising up, not in protest but in revenge.” Yet in the midst of danger, there is humor such as that inspired by an old dog— “‘Your dog shook,’ explained Beauvoir. ‘Oh, dear.’ ‘Yes. That’s pretty much what I said as I washed myself off and scraped down my desk. Gosh, I said, Bit of a mess.’ His eyes widened in a crazed look, and Lacoste laughed.” –and Gamache’s complete inability to understand anything said by Billy Williams with his thick, regional accent. For those who live in areas affected by natural disasters, it is poignant to see the characters contemplate what things they’d take were they being evacuated and faced with the loss of everything else they own.

   While the plot is strong, compelling and deals with difficult issues, it is the characters which keep readers engaged. None of Penny’s characters are stereotypical or unimportant. Each is fully developed and complex. Each has a purpose in the story. Gamache is the depiction of a person one should aspire to be. Through him, Penny gifts the reader with the four statements that lead one to wisdom— “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help.” –and the admonition of poet Seamus Heaney: Noli timere, “Be not afraid.” However, it is somewhat reassuring that even the best people have weaknesses.

   Circumstances, pain, grace and self-awareness have matured Jean-Guy. His relationship with Gamache is complex, deep and abiding, one which has survived many conflicts and internal struggles. What is interesting is that Penny uses the character of Billy as the eyes to see the true strength of the relationship, understanding, and love that Gamache has for Jean-Guy. It is also the communities of Three Pines and of the team at the Sûreté which demonstrate the solidity of the wider circle.

   There is wisdom to be found within the story— “Before speaking…you might want to ask yourself three questions…Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?” –followed by a very human reaction to fear— “Don’t pee, don’t pee, don’t pee.” There is also well-done forensic information which is interesting and informative. However, there is also a very good plot twist and a very dramatic climax.

   he book is a mystery and a very good one. One may not figure out what had happened until the reveal. And there’s suspense and twists which cause one to catch one’s breath. But as always with Penny’s books, it is about the characters; about relationships; strong, toxic, messy, or just forming. It is about compassion and conscience, growth and change. It is about us; we complicated humans. Penny’s ability to describe emotions is unmatched.

   A Better Man is an excellent book in an outstanding series. It presents one with a lot of here, here. There is suspense, humor, and things which make one think— “Things are strongest where they are broken.” The ending touches the heart and may bring tears to one’s eyes. Most of all, it leaves one wanting to re-read the series from the beginning while wanting the next book right now.

Rating: Excellent.