The Reviews: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series

I recently finished Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, the seventeenth in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, and the most recently published. For the moment, there are no more Gamache novels to read, unless I go back and re-read the series. This has quite simply been one of the best series I’ve read. While Penny’s books are often favored by women readers, I’ve found myself drawn by the strong male characters, especially Armand and Jean Guy. Particularly, I want to grow up to be like Armand! Equally, I find myself deeply appreciating the strong and diverse female characters–Reine Marie, Clara, Myrna, Isabelle Lacoste, and of course, Ruth (and Rosa!). Like so many readers, I want to live in Three Pines, or foster the kind of Three Pines community where I live (perhaps one of Penny’s hopes). I also have been provoked to thought, and not a little self-examination, by Penny’s insight that a murder often begins many years before with a nursed grievance allowed to fester. Finally, there are Gamache’s four sentences that lead to wisdom:

I don’t know.

I need help.

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

The older I get, the more I find myself saying these things and I find myself looking back at my younger self and wish I’d learned this wisdom sooner.

I thought it would be fun to create a page with all my Gamache reviews. While I try to avoid spoilers in the reviews, those of subsequent books may give away plot details you’d rather discover for yourself if you haven’t read the previous ones. But if you are like me and want to go back and remember, this might prove helpful. I’ve just included publication info, a brief summary, and a link to the full review.

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005.

Summary: The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer. Review

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache #2), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2006.

Summary: An unliked but aspiring author comes to Three Pines and is murdered in front of a crowd at a curling match yet no one sees how it happened. Review

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Gamache #3), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2007.

Summary: Gamache returns to Three Pines to solve a murder during a seance at the old Hadley House while forces within the Surete’ (and on his team) plot his downfall to avenge the Arnot case. Review

A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache #4), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2008.

Summary: The Gamache’s getaway to a peaceful lodge is interrupted, first by an unloving family reunion, and then by the death of one of the family, crushed under a statue. Meanwhile, the naming of a child forces Gamache to face his own family history. Review

The Brutal Telling (Chief Inspector Gamache #5), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2009.

Summary: The body of an unknown man is found in the bistro of Gabri and Olivier, and Olivier is the chief suspect! Review

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Gamache #6), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010.

Summary: Gamache and Beauvoir are on leave after an attempt to rescue an agent goes terribly wrong. As each faces their own traumas they get caught up in murder investigations in Quebec City and Three Pines. Review

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Gamache #7), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2012.

Summary: The vernissage for Clara’s art show is a stunning success with glowing reviews only to be spoiled when the body of her estranged childhood friend is found in her flowerbed. Review

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #8), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013.

Summary: While solving a case involving the murder of a prior in a remote monastery, Gamache must confront his arch-nemesis Chief Superintendent Sylvain Françoeur. Review

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Gamache #9), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2013.

Summary: The murder of the last Ouellet quintuplet, a former client and friend of Myrna’s brings Gamache back to Three Pines which serves as a hidden base of operations as Sylvain Francoeur’s efforts to destroy Gamache comes to a head. Review

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2015.

Summary: Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted when Peter Morrow fails to return as agreed a year after his separation from Clara and they embark on a search taking them to a desolate corner of Quebec. Review

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. Review, Second Review

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Gamache #12), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: Gamache returns to the Sûreté as Commander of its Academy, and finds himself at the center of a murder investigation of one of its corrupt professors. Review

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Gamache #13), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2017.

Summary: A mysterious figure robed in black, the murder of a woman found in those robes, a confession, and a trial, during which Gamache has made choices of conscience that could cost lives and save many. Review

Kingdom of the Blind (Chief Inspector Gamache #14), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2018.

Summary: Gamache, Myrna, and Benedict, a young building maintenance worker who hopes to be a builder are named as liquidators of the estate of a cleaning woman while Amelia Choquet, caught with drugs, is expelled from the Academy to the streets as a powerful and lethal drug is about to hit. Review

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. Review

All the Devils Are Here (Chief Inspector Gamache #16), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2020.

Summary: A family visit of the Gamaches to children in Paris suddenly becomes an investigation into the attempted murder of Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather, and the murder of a close associate, and will put the Gamaches in great peril. Review

The Madness of Crowds (Chief Inspector Gamache #17), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2021.

Summary: A Christmas assignment to provide security for a professor proposing mercy killing leads to a murder investigation in Three Pines. Review

The most recent novel in this series envisions what it is like to emerge from the pandemic. One thing I would say is that this series has been one of the things that got me through the pandemic. My review of the first volume was posted on April 2, 2020, less than a month after the world locked down. The most recent posted June 13, 2022, a bit over two years later. Pandemic has morphed into endemic and the new normal is a scarier world of war in Ukraine, inflation, gun violence, and political discord stretching from Sri Lanka to the United States. Amid all the murders (both in the real world and the books), the Gamache series reminds me of the goodness that remains, a goodness worth fighting and resisting for as well as celebrating in our daily lives. And there is one more goodness, at least…Louise Penny is still writing and book 18, A World of Curiosities, is expected in late 2022. When I get the chance to read it, and any subsequent numbers, it and they will be added to the list!

Review: The Madness of Crowds

The Madness of Crowds (Chief Inspector Gamache #17), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2021.

Summary: A Christmas assignment to provide security for a professor proposing mercy killing leads to a murder investigation in Three Pines.

It began with a request to provide security for a speech at a nearby university at an old gym over the Christmas holidays.. It seems like something far beneath the pay grade of Gamache until he investigates the speaker. Abigail Robinson is a polished academic, comfortable with statistics who speaks with calm conviction. She had submitted a report to the Canadian government about pandemic deaths that concluded with a startling proposal. The havoc wrought on the economy meant that the government couldn’t continue to support the elderly and others with disabilities. The answer was mercy killing. And she assures her audiences with this familiar tag line, “All will be well” or in Quebec, “ça va bien aller.” Her message cuts like a sword, attracting a growing social media following of those who embrace her ideas and a contingent of those outraged that such a thing might even be considered.

Gamache recognizes the danger such an event represents. He knows he cannot legally stop her but pleads that the university cancel the event. Citing free speech, they refuse. A huge and volatile crowd of all ages arrives and despite security, an attempt is made on her life. Only Gamache’s reaction saves her…and he wonders if he should have.

The professor’s ideas reach deeply into Gamache’s circle. His granddaughter Idola, Jean Guy’s daughter, is a Downs Syndrome child. She would be a candidate for mercy killing. Both Gamache and Beauvoir struggle not only with the inherent moral issue Professor Robinson’s ideas raise, but the reality that they could not let this happen to Idola, even as they also understand the reality of the challenges of care for a special needs child.

Meanwhile, a Nobel prize nominee, Haniya Daoud, is visiting Three Pines, the guest of Myrna, who was one of the first to support her human rights organization in Canada. She relentlessly works to free children and women in bondage in South Sudan. She’s fierce, having killed her own drunken captor to escape, and killing others to free captive children. Her face bears the physical scars of her captivity. There are other scars that go deeper, including a hatred for law enforcement. Having heard about Abigail Robinson, whose ideas are against all she stands for, she calls Gamache a coward for protecting her.

While Gamache’s team investigates the murder attempt, which involved more than the person apprehended, Professor Robinson and her assistant Debbie Schneider are given protection but asked not to leave Chancellor Collette Roberge’s home. Roberge had been a mentor to Abigail Robinson after her father’s death and was responsible for the invitation to speak. On New Year’s Eve, Roberge was invited to a gathering at the Hadley House, now the Auberge, and she brings Abigail and Debbie along. Vincent Gilbert, “the Asshole Saint” we’ve encountered in earlier volumes is there. There is an uncomfortable encounter when Gilbert challenges the morality of what Robinson is proposing and she brings up the name of Ewan Cameron, whose unethical psychological experiments were used by the CIA in interrogations, that left a trail of human wreckage that will become important to the plot. We learn later that Gilbert was a lowly lab assistant caring for animals who knew what was happening and did nothing, a secret he’d protected for years, now exposed.

The New Year’s celebration occurs. Kids light sparklers, there is a huge fireworks display, couples kiss, teens go off in the woods to drink. Just before midnight, Debbie and Collette step outside. Minutes later, as Billy Williams is extinguishing the bonfire, kids race out of the woods, reporting a body laying in the snow. Gamache fears it is Robinson, but when the crime scene investigators arrive, it is discovered to be Debbie Schneider, dead from blunt force trauma from a piece of firewood. They face two questions. Did the killer mistake her for Abigail or was she the target? And who is the killer? Vincent Gilbert? Collette Roberge? Abigail Robinson herself? The son of the man arrested for the gym incident, who was working the party? Or maybe Haniya Daoud, who has killed before?

Penney raises important questions. How has the pandemic changed us? Has the cavalier disregard for elder lives in care settings on the part of some, opened the door to consider measures like mercy killing that were once off the table? Are the elderly and those with disabilities a “drag” on the economy and a burden to society we cannot afford? On what basis will we defend their right to life? And what price are we willing to pay for our safety? Ewan Cameron was not a fictional character. Unsuspecting patients, often women suffering post-partum depression, were victims of his CIA research which used curare, LSD, electroconvulsive shock, and sensory deprivation. The CIA continues to use the fruits of his research in interrogations.

Gamache has to wrestle with these issues as he prepares his own report on the horrors he witnessed in care facilities during the pandemic. And Beauvoir will confront these in a very different way in the climactic scene of the novel. I also find myself wondering if we’ve seen the last of Haniya Daoud. Louise Penny is still writing!

Review: All the Devils Are Here

All the Devils Are Here (Chief Inspector Gamache #16), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2020.

Summary: A family visit of the Gamaches to children in Paris suddenly becomes an investigation into the attempted murder of Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather, and the murder of a close associate, and will put the Gamaches in great peril.

” ‘Hell is empty, Armand,’ said Stephen Horowitz.

‘You’ve mentioned that. And all the devils are here?” asked Armand Gamache.”

All the Devils Are Here. p. 1.

This opening conversation seems strange in the garden of the Musee Rodin as Armand and his godfather Stephen Horowitz, an aging but active venture capitalist, who raised Armand from age nine, talk in the safety of each other’s company, sitting in front of Rodin’s statue, The Gates of Hell. Armand had always felt safe with this man. They are in Paris on a joyous occasion, the imminent birth of a child to Annie and Jean-Guy, and a chance to visit Daniel and Roslyn. They agree to meet that night for dinner with the whole family.

After dinner as they walk, tragedy strikes. Stephen Horowitz is run down by a van. To Gamache it is no accident, but intentional, and as Stephen lays clinging to life, Gamache works with Claude Dussault, the Prefect of Police in Paris to uncover who is behind all this. But not before the Armand and Reine-Marie find a second man gunned down in Stephen’s apartment, which has been ransacked in what appears an unsuccessful search, the Gamaches interrupting the gunman.

The whole family soon becomes involved. It becomes apparent that the engineering firm with which Jean-Guy is working, a position secretly arranged by Stephen, has been the target of Stephen’s efforts, that were to culminate with Stephen’s attendance at an upcoming board meeting. Jean-Guy searches for what could have been so important to cover up in the firm, GHS, drawing the attention of a security guard who turns out to be more than that. Daniel digs into financial transactions Stephen had with his bank, imperiling his safety. Reine-Marie works with a famous French archivist to discover both the secrets hidden in some cryptic dates Stephen had written on a piece of paper, and to learn the truth about disturbing allegations about Stephen’s past.

The investigations put the whole family at risk, and they move into a lavish suite Stephen mysteriously rented for his stay rather than using his own apartment, where they could be better protected. But the secret whose threads they are unraveling is apparently so dire that those concealing it have left a trail of bodies in their wake, including a journalist investigating a GHS mine and a mysterious train derailment. And the trail of corruption appears to include even Gamache’s old friend Dussault. What protection do they have if the Paris police are corrupted?

Along the way, we discover more about Gamache’s childhood with Stephen, and about the cause of the estrangement between Gamache and his son Daniel, going back to Daniel’s childhood. And Gamache and Jean-Guy are teamed up once more, for those of us who feared we’d seen the end of their teamwork.

The two things that make this a riveting read are the effort to uncover GHS’s buried secret and the question of whether Gamache and the family team (plus a few others) will be able to outsmart and outmaneuver those willing to stop at nothing to protect that secret. They are not even sure of who the “devils” may be and whether they are in their very midst. All this leads to a heart-stopping climax at Stephen’s apartment.

Once again, resolute love runs through this book–the love between Armand and Stephen, expressed with great tenderness at Stephen’s bedside, the love Armand has for his family, even, and especially the estranged Daniel, who at the same time realizes that Jean-Guy has become something to Armand that Daniel is not able to share.

Which brings me back to what captures my appreciation for this series. It is not just the consummate storytelling, but above all the character of Gamache and those around him, people of resolve, integrity, and grace who at least this reader wants to emulate.

Review: A Better Man

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.

Review: Kingdom of the Blind

Kingdom of the Blind (Chief Inspector Gamache #14), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2018.

Summary: Gamache, Myrna, and Benedict, a young building maintenance worker who hopes to be a builder are named as liquidators of the estate of a cleaning woman while Amelia Choquet, caught with drugs, is expelled from the Academy to the streets as a powerful and lethal drug is about to hit.

[Spoiler alert: Because this is a review of a book in a series, some details in this review may be “spoilers” if you have not read previous numbers in the series.]

Armand Gamache is on suspension for his highly irregular (and ultimately effective) operation described in the last novel. It meant looking the other way on a drug shipment, some of which is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The drug is the highly lethal carfentanyl. He has admitted to it all, but the hope is that he’ll be restored to his position of Chief Superintendent. Interrogations of his son-in-law, Guy de Beauvoir, who is now Chief Inspector of Homicide, suggests they are preparing to scapegoat Gamache, and Beauvoir has to decide whether he is going to save his own job or remain at the side of his father-in-law. Meanwhile, Gamache is determined to recover the drugs.

All this is in the background of the two plot lines in this novel. The first comes when Gamache learns he has been named as a liquidator (a kind of executor) of the will of Bertha Baumgartner, a cleaning woman who had lived nearby and worked for some of the family in Three Pines and called herself “The Baronness.” Myrna Landers, the bookstore owner, is also a liquidator. The third is a quirky but seemingly pleasant young man, Benedict, a handyman in his apartment building in Montreal, who hopes to work as a contractor. None knows why they have been named. They meet the notary at Bertha’s derelict home amid a snow storm. They are not the heirs, who are The Baronness’s three children: Anthony, Caroline, and Hugo. It turns out she has left each a huge fortune and properties in Europe, although all this seems fanciful.

Things take an interesting turn when Benedict returns to the snow-laden house. He had been staying with the Gamaches while his truck was towed to get decent snow tires, which Gamache offered to pay for. Alarmed, because of the condition of the house, Gamache goes after him as does Myrna. They find the house collapsed, apparently from the weight of the snow. They find and, after a harrowing further collapse, manage to rescue Benedict, but not before they discover that someone else had been there, dead in the rubble. It turns out to be Anthony Baumgartner. The nature of his wounds, a crushed skull, point to him being dead before the collapse–murdered. As Beauvoir, Lacoste, who is recovering from a severe wound, and a forensic accountant investigate the death, Gamache digs into the will, which leads to the discovery of a long-unresolved family dispute in Austria. The will of Bertha Baumgartner might not be all that fanciful.

Amelia Choquet has been found in possession of drugs. The director of the academy consults with Gamache, who declines to give her another chance. In her third year, she is expelled, though not criminally charged. She returns to her old apartment and the streets of Montreal with a vengeance, fueled by anger at Gamache. She is determined to find the carfentanyl and gain control of its distribution, calling it “Gamache” out of spite and using her knowledge of the streets and academy training to build a network of junky dealers. But first she has to find who has it. As she looks, she awakes from having passed out with a strange Sharpie inscription on her arm, “David 1/4.” She’s not the only one with this inscription, some of whom are found dead. She relentlessly searches for “David,” thinking he must have the carfentanyl. Unbeknownst to her, Gamache has agents secretly tailing her. And looking for a little girl in a red tuque who keeps showing up and may be in danger.

There are some funny sidelights, such as Honore’s first word, a fascinating bond between an elderly financial adviser and friend of the Gamache’s and Ruth, and a new relationship for Myrna. Beauvoir’s dilemma creates, at least for him, a new round of wondering how far he can trust Gamache and if Gamache has told him all that is going on. And we learn that Gamache, as well as other characters in the story, have hidden things. Once again, Gamache pursues methods that are “out of the moral box” with the justification of a greater good.

I find myself wondering if this will catch him up, if these choices will destroy the decency, integrity, and kindness of this man. He has been up against people who don’t think the moral rules of the rest of society apply to them. Could he become one of them? I certainly hope not, but Penny’s development of Gamache in this way opens both intriguing and frightening possibilities. And she leaves me wondering, what will happen to Choquet?

Review: Glass Houses

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Gamache #13), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2017.

Summary: A mysterious figure robed in black, the murder of a woman found in those robes, a confession, and a trial, during which Gamache has made choices of conscience that could cost lives and save many.

A woman is on trial for a murder in Three Pines and Gamache is the key prosecution witness. The previous fall, a mysterious, black-cloaked figure appears on the village green. Everyone is disturbed, including four friends visiting Myrna, friends who have often visited, but never this late in the fall. They look to Gamache, now Chief Superintendent to do something, but the figure has broken no law other than stand there and stare toward the Bistro, especially toward a dishwasher and aspiring cook, Anton. Feeling runs high, with Gamache intervening to prevent bodily harm. The next morning, the figure which they have discovered is a cobrador, or “conscience,” is gone.

Then Reine-Marie discovers the body in a black robe and mask in the basement of the village chapel. The body turns out to be that of Katie Evans, one of the four visiting Myrna. Chief Inspector LaCoste and her team come to investigate. A key detail is a bat, the murder weapon, found near the body. Yet Reine-Marie, who notices everything did not mention seeing that bat. Subsequently a baker, Jacqueline, goes to Gamache’s house and makes a confession. Indeed, the evidence points toward her. Except for the discrepancy of the bat. But why the cobrador, and why did Katie end up the one murdered?

It is at this trial that Gamache is testifying, confronted by a prosecutor, Zalmanowitz, who is hostile toward his own witness. A rookie judge, assigned to the trial, begins to sense something is up. A key moment in the trial comes when Gamache testifies about the bat. He perjures himself, something we can never imagine him doing.

What is going on? It all has to do with a desperate strategy Gamache has set in motion around the time of the murder. It raises profound questions of conscience. May the law be disobeyed for the sake of a higher law, and a potentially greater good? Can this be done when it will likely cost the loss of lives, at least some of which could have been prevented, but at the expense of a greater victory? And what if such a strategy implicates the prosecutor, the judge, Jean Guy, and the top leadership of the Surete, as well as himself?

Aside from these weighty questions for which Gamache bears the weight of decision and responsibility, there are other sparkling aspects of this story. We witness the growing bond between Jean Guy and Ruth Zardo, almost his alter ego, and the sheer courage and compassion of Ruth in the climactic scene. We see Clara’s artistic genius turned to the figures of Three Pines and we wonder when she will paint Gamache. And in the presence of the cobrador, we see the residents confess to each other their moral failures, aware that the light of conscience usually reveals something unseemly in all of us. As is Gamache, aware of the momentous choices he has made that will rest on his conscience.

Review: A Great Reckoning

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Gamache #12), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: Gamache returns to the Sûreté as Commander of its Academy, and finds himself at the center of a murder investigation of one of its corrupt professors.

*Note: if you have not read previous books in this series, information in this review may include “spoilers” for previous books.

Armand Gamache has figured out his next work after his brief retirement in Three Pines. He has accepted the command of the Sûreté Academy, training future officers. The Academy was where the corruption of young officers began, and his determination was to bring it to an end.

Meanwhile, Reine-Marie has settled down in the village, helping archive its history. She agrees to help Ruth, Myrna, and Clara sort through old papers stuffed in the wall of the Bistro, perhaps a hundred years ago. Among these was an unusual map with a snowman and a pyramid, and a very young Three Pines.

One of Armand’s first duties is to review new candidate applications. He’s drawn to one repeatedly rejected. Amelia Choquet. With her piercings, tattoos, troubled background and poor marks, it seems that it would not be a hard decision. And yet…. In the end, Armand accepts her.

He also makes two unusual decisions. He keeps on the former assistant director at the Academy, Serge LeDuc, as a professor, explaining he knows he is a source of corruption but did not have evidence. He also brings his estranged childhood friend and former superior Michel Brebeuf, who had given way to the corruption of the Sûreté. He also assigns the four students LeDuc is grooming, who “serve” LeDuc (Amelia Choquet, Nathaniel Smythe, Huifen Cloutier, and Jacques Laurin) to figure out the mystery of the map in the wall

Then one of the four student “servants” of LeDuc, Nathaniel Smythe finds him dead of a gunshot to the temple, only the gun is found on the opposite side of his body. The revolver was LeDuc’s and had partial prints of several, including Amelia and Gamache, who claims he never handled the gun, which he would have banned. In a bedside table, a copy of the map of Three Pines is found, and Amelia’s is missing.

With Isabel Lacoste’s permission, Gamache spirits the four students to Three Pines. Is he protecting a murderer? Or is he protecting them from a murderer? Or more sinister yet, is Gamache the murderer? Secrets uncovered by an RCMP observer leads him to suspect Gamache, secrets that involve Amelia Cloquet, secrets Gamache has not spoken of to Reine-Marie.

Lacoste and Jean Guy Beauvoir don’t want to believe it. Meanwhile, the students are learning investigative skills and trying to decide whether Gamache is a weak, perhaps corrupt has-been, or a kind and strong leader, in contrast to the brutal and power hungry LeDuc, who especially has influenced Jacques. All this while chasing down a century old mystery involving one of Quebec’s foremost map makers.

A powerful influence in cleansing the cadets of corruption turn out to be the villagers. It is the power of ordinary goodness, even the FINE goodness of Ruth, who helps Nathaniel and speaks in poetry to Amelia or Olivier and Gabri, who put them to work in the kitchen. With Gamache, the goodness goes deeper. Even as trouble swirls about him, he acts with deliberation, even consideration for the RCMP observer who is preparing to arrest him, and for his childhood friend, Brebeuf. His strength comes from knowing where he is broken, and having grown from it. It comes from knowing that there is a power in kindness and integrity before which brute, corrupt power fails in the end.

On a side note, I find myself noticing more and more the delightful meals interspersed in the action. I suspect Louise Penny loves lingering over good and healthy food. At least her characters do, which seems another kind of goodness that shines through these books, the rich fellowship of the table, where both good food and good friends are savored. These meals punctuate the darkness of murders and corruptions with reminders of the goodness that is greater. And they make the reader hungry!

Review: The Nature of the Beast (second reading)

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.

Review: The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2015.

Summary: Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted when Peter Morrow fails to return as agreed a year after his separation from Clara and they embark on a search taking them to a desolate corner of Quebec.

[Note: This review assumes readers who have read previous books in the series. While I try hard to avoid spoilers for the current book, some information here might “spoil” reading of previous books.]

Armand and Reine Marie have settled into what is hoped to be a peaceful and joyous retirement in Three Pines. Each morning, Gamache goes, sits on a bench above the village, pulls out a slim book, reads only as far as a bookmark, and gazes on the village. Clara Morrow has begun joining him and it is clear there is something on her mind. Finally she asks, and she dares to break into his peace, telling him that Peter had not come home. A year before, when it was clear he was deeply jealous of Clara’s growing success that was eclipsing his, she asked him to leave. For a year. When he returned, they would decide where the marriage went. On the day he was supposed to return, he did not come. No letter or contact. Days turned into weeks. No Peter and no word. Not like Peter.

Armand agrees to help, joined by his son-in-law, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna, the bookstore owner who has become his counselor. Slowly a picture emerges, in fact, a number, sent to Bean, who we met in an earlier novel. They are a veritable “dog’s mess,” painted by Peter, but unlike anything he’s ever painted. They reflect a long journey through Europe to a strange garden in Dumfries, Scotland, and a remote location outside of Baie St Paul in the Charlevoix region. Between those two locations, he had visited charming old professor Massey in Toronto, withdrew money from his bank in Montreal and disappeared.

How to understand the paintings and to make sense of Peter’s journey occupies much of the book. It seems that a controversial professor recruited and later dismissed by Massey, Norman or “No Man,” had created an artist commune or cult in Baie St. Paul some years back around the idea of the “tenth muse,” which was believed to be the muse of artists. Was Peter, whose career was eclipsed seeking the muse in some kind of crazed effort to regain eminence over Clara.

The foursome embark on a journey, led by Clara, not Gamache, at her insistence. They do not find Peter, or No Man, but find clues that take them to Tabaquen, a remote and desolate village along the St. Lawrence in the far eastern reaches of Quebec . The question is what will they find when they get there?

Throughout the book two themes recur: the balm of Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul and the idea of “a brave man in a brave country.” Will they find a sin-sick soul, corrupted by jealousy? Will they find one who has found balm, and become a brave man in a brave country? Will Peter find that what he has sought to the ends of Canada was something that was already his in the love and creativity of Clara? Or will he be a different man, maddened with jealousy, driven by a quest for a mythical muse to bring a fresh spark of creativity to his art?

The story turns on jealousy, the mystery of artistic creativity, and perspective, centered around both a painting that reveals different things depending on how it is turned and the identity of a mad figure in a yearbook drawing from the art school. Perspective will also figure in the emerging picture of what they will find in Tabaquen.

Unlike other books thus far, this has no side plots. From a peaceful beginning, it develops methodically, but not without its humorous moments, to an edge-of-the-seat ending. Savor every moment. They all matter.

Review: How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Gamache #9), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2013.

Summary: The murder of the last Ouellet quintuplet, a former client and friend of Myrna’s brings Gamache back to Three Pines which serves as a hidden base of operations as Sylvain Francoeur’s efforts to destroy Gamache comes to a head.

Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur as taken away Gamache’s right hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, transferred out his department’s best agents, filling their slots with the indifferent or corrupt. Is it simply the fact that Gamache had arrested former Chief Superintendent Arnot? Or is there, as Gamache suspects, something more going on?

Amid the increasing pressure on Gamache, he continues to do his job. And that job takes him back to Three Pines. A former client who had become a friend of Myrna Landers was supposed to come for a Christmas visit but fails to turn up. Gamache investigates and finds her dead in her home, killed by a head blow from a lamp as she was packing. One of the most startling discoveries was that she was Constance Ouellet, the last of the Ouellet quintuplets, considered a true miracle at their birth, exploited by a doctor who had not even been at the delivery, and used by the government to create a fairy-tale story. Who would have a motive to kill her? It turns out that Constance has left clues, unrecognized by those around her.

The murder allows Gamache, through a combination of misdirection and shrewd preparation, to turn Three Pines into a base of operations to ferret out what Francoeur is trying to do, along with Yvette Nichol, who has been spending years in the basement of the Surete learning to listen, and Jerome and Assistant Superintendent Therese Brunel. Jerome has been covertly infiltrating the Surete’s systems until he found a name that scared him. It’s time for the Brunels to flee, ostensibly to Vancouver, but actually to Three Pines.

One problem. When they find what they are looking for, they will be found, jeopardizing the whole village. It comes down to who will outmaneuver who? And the wild card is Beauvoir, who knows Gamache and in his drug addiction is tied to Francoeur.

One other piece. A woman in the Transportation Ministry, Audrey Villeneuve was found dead at the base of the most heavily-traveled bridge in Montreal. Her car was on the bridge and her death was ruled as a suicide. The book opens with her distraught drive onto the bridge. Let’s just say it’s not irrelevant.

The story line leaves us wondering at times if Gamache is paranoid, seeing conspiracies where there are none and becoming unhinged. Does he love and then leave as Beauvoir believes, or is there love that persists even when denied? And was inviting Nichol a good idea? Is this an one of Gamache’s redemption efforts that will put them all at risk? Penny quotes a poem, “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, with these words “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” In this novel, we see in Gamache who believes in the foolish wisdom that to risk loving and trusting is the crack that lets the light in. The question is whether this will prevail over the earthly wisdom of power. Many lives and a hidden village hang in the balance.