A Better Man (Chief Inspector Gamache #15), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2019.
Summary: Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste are together again, searching for a missing girl amid rising floods and a flood of social media attacks against Gamache and the art of Clara Morrow.
We left Gamache removed from his position as Chief Superintendent after his daring and legally questionable tactics to quash the drug trade. Jean Guy, who had taken his old position of Chief Inspector of Homicide is headed for a private sector job in Paris in a couple weeks. And Armand? He accepts the one position no one thought he would take–his old job as Chief Inspector. And for two weeks, he is working under Jean Guy, his protege’ and son-in law. Awkward, eh?
During a meeting where Gamache is deferential to his new boss, Agent Cloutier discusses a call she received from Homer Godin, the father of her godchild Vivienne. Vivienne, married to an abusive husband, is missing after she had called to say she was leaving and coming to him. Beauvoir assigns him and Cloutier to have a look around, and their encounter with the husband, Carl Tracy, only amplifies their fears.
A larger fear is looming as well. There is a rapid thaw combined with spring rains throughout Quebec. Ice jams threaten bridges, rivers are rising everywhere, including the Bella Bella running through Three Pines, and the giant dams in the north are under stress. Gamache, called back to Montreal for a meeting of top civic leaders, quietly upstages the premier by recommending a drastic, but ultimately effective strategy. He’s dismissed from the meeting, and discovers something else is rising–a social media storm of criticism against him that jeopardizes even his current demoted status. Will Chief Superintendent Toussaint, who Gamache had recommended, protect herself and abandon Gamache to the sharks?
A similar social media storm is surrounding Clara Morrow, whose latest exhibit of miniatures have been panned, causing critics to re-evaluate her past art. Ruth, thinking to help, invites Dominica Oddly, the one New York art critic who has never reviewed Clara’s work to Clara’s studio. And while Oddly speaks glowingly of Clara’s past work, she considers the miniatures–well, as they say in French, merde and proceeds to write a review to that effect and then discovers what it means to tell all the truth with malice, while Clara faces the truth about these works and the wreckage of her career.
Isabelle Lacoste, at loose ends until her new assignment is finalized, joins the investigation to find Vivienne, working with Cloutier, who she has mentored. Then Beauvoir comes down to Three Pines when news of the flooding of the Bella Bella reaches him, and the three team up on the investigation. Amid the harrowing moments of narrowly averting the flooding of Three Pines using the tactics Gamache has recommended elsewhere, they find Vivienne’s body and a bag of her belongings, searched as her husband turns up and demands that they stop.
More and more, the evidence points to Carl Tracy, the husband. Cloutier gains access to a private Instagram account of Tracy’s through his sometime lover and assistant in marketing his pottery, and finds incriminating evidence. But when Tracy is arraigned, with Vivienne’s father present, it all goes sidewise due to the judge’s rulings that errors in procedure mean the whole evidence trail is poisoned fruit and cannot be used. Tracy goes scot-free while Gamache works to restrain Homer Godin from killing him.
It looks like Beauvoir’s last case with Gamache is going to hell. Are all the tweets true? And it has gotten worse. The real video that showed Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste in the factory ambush has been doctored to make Gamache look like a child killer. Then someone under the name @dumbass, who Gamache thinks is Ruth after her stunt with Dominica Oddly, posts the real video, bringing up old wounds for all involved.
What will they do? They go back and look at the evidence. What do they have that isn’t poisoned? And as they do, it takes them in unexpected directions and surprise revelations. The end of this one gets very twisty indeed.
There is a question running throughout, asked most desperately by Homer Godin, filled with grief and revenge, that Gamache and others face–what if it were your daughter, your child? What would you do? Do you try to murder the man who is your daughter’s abuser and killer? Do you let someone do so, when he is as vile as Tracy comes across? Ought the pursuit of justice, often hampered by procedures that protect the rights of the accused, step aside to allow revenge?
There is also a theme of mentors and mentees that runs through the book: Gamache and Beauvoir and their reversed roles and changing relationship as Beauvoir prepares to leave, Isabelle and Cloutier, particularly when Cloutier screws up, and Gamache and a young agent, Bob Cameron, a former football player who lost his job for repeatedly holding to protect his quarterback. Because of a relationship with the victim, he is even a possible suspect, yet we see Gamache beginning to teach, and I suspect we will see more of Bob Cameron.
We also see characters wrestle with the theme of what they will do when they screw up, or are perceived to do by vicious social media. Will Gamache be “a better man”? Will Clara become a better artist? Meanwhile, we are left wondering whether things between Myrna and Billy Williams will go anywhere and stand in amazement at the drunken old poet Ruth as she leads the effort to sandbag the river frontage against rising floods, and whispers wise comfort to Homer at his most murderous.
I continue to love these books as an extended exploration of the character of leadership and the communal decency of this small village. This one had so many layers that wove seamlessly together in a twisting and fascinating plot that I’ve come to recognize as a mark of Penny’s genius.