The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.
Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.
Usually I will only review a book once. I initially reviewed The Nature of the Beast in February of 2020, sharing my realization that I had started my reading of the Chief Inspector Gamache series out of order. A number of Louise Penny fans suggested that while I could do that, there was so much I was missing out on by not reading them in order. This review is to say that they were right on both counts. The plot of this book stands by itself as an exciting effort to find the murderer of a boy, missing parts and plans to the big gun he found, and the killer of a director of a play written by a sociopath. If you want to know more of the plot, you may read my first review.
There is so much I did not understand about the character and setting of this book that all make sense having gone back and read the series in order (with several more books still to look forward to). Among these are:
- Just how batty and brilliant Ruth Zardo really is, her hidden depths of insight and moral compass, and why she lives with a duck named Rosa and the unusual relation she has with Jean Guy Beauvoir a.k.a. “numbnuts.”
- Why Armand and Reine-Marie have moved to this quaint village in eastern Quebec that doesn’t even show up on any maps or GPS systems, and why Armand’s forehead is creased with a scar and why he retired early from the Surete.
- The long and complicated road Armand and Jean Guy Beauvoir have navigated to reaching their affectionate relationship as father and son-in-law. Little had I realized that it almost didn’t happen.
- I wouldn’t understand the loss it may be if Clara could never paint again, and why she was trying to paint a portrait of Peter.
- The development of both Beauvoir and Lacoste, who replaced him, and even lesser characters like Yvette Nichol and Adam Cohen, and the insightful mentorship Gamache offered each of them, recognizing the hidden talents and essence of good Surete officers others missed.
- The importance Myrna Landers plays to the psychological welfare of Three Pines, including that of Gamache–far beyond the new and used books she sells (or Ruth takes) in her store.
- What the nature of the corruption of the Surete was that affected the young officers Gamache encounters early in this story, and why the accusation of cowardice made by John Fleming stung so deeply and was in fact so untrue.
- The element of good food savored during leisurely meals of stimulating conversations, often supplied by Olivier and Gabri, the gay bistro and B & B owners.
I suspect if you are a lover of this series, you could easily add to my list. It is plain to me that one’s experience of these books is far richer when you read them in the order written. Part of the richness for me is a growing appreciation for the world Louise Penny fashions. One wants to visit any place she describes. She sees them with an eye for the cultural and historical richness. And the one place that she creates out of whole cloth seems like such a wonderful place that we would all move there or at least visit if we could.
Deeper than the settings of her novels, I revel in the quiet beauty of the web of relationships in these books. With some exceptions, Penny’s characters are strong individuals with well-formed identities who meet each other with respect and mutual affection, without the neediness and co-dependence we encounter in so many books. None are without flaws, yet even these are accepted with humor and grace in most instances. What a delight to see so many people comfortable in their own skins!
Penny offers us a vision of lives well lived. They are lives lived in community, filled with conversations over good food, lives with time to cultivate the inner life, and out of that, great creativity. One of the things that marks Gamache, that he transmits to others is taking time for a good “think.” In our hurried existence focused on productivity, on doing, Gamache, like many great detectives in literature does his best work by thinking. Three Pines affords space for stillness in which thought as well as creative work may occur.
I only vaguely intuited some of these things and just plain didn’t understand most of them on my first reading. Beyond the value of reading these books is order is what we encounter when we do. Amid riveting stories, Penny explores larger issues of the life well-lived. I think the draw of these books in part is they paint an alternative to our technologized, frantic, and often relationally-isolated lives. While we cannot visit Three Pines, one senses in these books the invitation to bring the best of Three Pines (not the murders!) into our own lives.