When Louise Penny introduced top Quebec cop Armand Gamache in 2006’s “Still Life,” she launched more than a series of smart and sharply written mysteries. She also created characters who quickly felt like friends and gathered fans who have since formed a community.
Setting out to write books she herself would want to read, Penny has managed in 14 (soon 15) increasingly popular novels to straddle the tricky line between edgy and cozy, between horrifying and humorous.
The village of Three Pines, hidden amid the forests and hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, is the kind of warm, welcoming place worth looking for. Its residents — ancient poet Ruth and her sidekick, duck Rosa; therapist turned bookstore owner Myrna; insecure artist Clara; bistro and B&B proprietors Olivier and Gabri; and Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache themselves — are the neighbors you want, equally ready with soup, Scotch and sarcasm.
But harsh reality encroaches, and not just in Three Pines’ alarming crime rate. Problems of drugs, gangs and homelessness, workplace infighting and political backbiting fester just an hour away in Montreal.
Gamache is the bridge between these worlds, and never more so than in “A Better Man,” due out Tuesday and the event of summer in the crowded field of mystery writing.
We return to a Three Pines in turmoil. All our old friends are on hand, but not early on as we usually see them. Instead, in the dark and cold, they are sandbagging.
The St. Lawrence River is flooding and with it the Riviere Bella Bella, the twice-beautiful stream that normally flows placidly past Three Pines. Frantic efforts may not be enough to save the village from the extraordinary rush of water.
The upheaval doesn’t stop at the overflowing banks. In Montreal, Gamache is back at work, but on uncertain ground. The aftereffects of drastic action he took two books back to fight drugs entering Quebec has left him unpopular with politicians and, thanks to social media slurs, the general public.
No wonder Gamache grabs an excuse to get out of the office, heading toward home to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who was apparently about to leave her abusive husband. This also gives him a chance to confront the raging Bella Bella, to console the missing woman’s frantic father and to work, one last time, with his former second-in-command (and son-in-law), Jean-Guy Beauvoir, on the brink of a move to Paris.
Penny doesn’t deal in superficialities; no character, victim or perpetrator, is all good or all evil, once the depths are probed. Ponder the title, “A Better Man,” as you’re sure to do, and many meanings come to mind. Who among them wants, or needs, to become a better man? What will it take? What has been learned, and what must still be taken to heart?
The anonymous cruelties of the virtual world form an important subplot in “A Better Man,” but in Penny’s world, goodness abounds online. Penny herself is generous with her time and thoughts, treating subscribers to her blog, via louisepenny.com, to monthly newsletters and thoughts about selected passages in the Gamache novels. The website is also a rich resource on everything Penny (and Gamache).
Penny lives in the Knowlton area, where a Three Pines tourism industry has sprung up, with tailored Gamache tours and businesses that echo the familiar places in the books. Brome Lake Books has not only all the novels in its Three Pines section, but it also has souvenirs including T-shirts, mugs and even licorice pipes. (Common in Canada, they look like pipes but are made of black licorice and often enjoyed by the residents of Three Pines.)
With a new book tour starting, Penny won’t be spending much time at home in the near future. She’ll miss St. Louis this time, but last winter, she packed the St. Louis County Library for a Q&A and sold-out signing that left fans impressed not just with the books but also with the author. When she comes back (next year?), bringing another new Gamache, she’s sure to be even more warmly welcomed.
Gail Pennington retired in 2017 as Post-Dispatch TV critic.