‘A Better Man’ shows Louise Penny at her compelling best

Her Three Pines mystery series, with Inspector Gamache, is a rare one that becomes more interesting the longer it goes on.

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
‘A Better Man’ by Louise Penny, Minotaur Books, 448 pp.

It was meant to be an offer he had to refuse. Armand Gamache was supposed to slink away in disgrace. A painstakingly prepared trap set for the drug dealers flooding Quebec and New England with opioids caught the bad guys but left the detective shattered, a beloved mentee near death, and a cache of deadly addictive substances on the streets.

Gamache, formerly in charge of Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, was demoted and grudgingly offered his old job as head of homicide. Complicating matters, that role is currently, if temporarily, occupied by his right-hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

Gamache takes the job anyway in Louise Penny’s typically outstanding new mystery, “A Better Man.” Penny’s Three Pines series is a rare one that becomes more interesting the longer it goes on.

“You’re wondering if I really want to be here or if I took the job to spite those who only offered it to humiliate me?” he asks the younger detectives on his first day on the job. “I can think of no better way to be useful.”

His first case is hardly glamorous. A young woman has gone missing and her father is a friend of the department’s most useless detective. The two go out in search of Vivienne Godin, and find heartache, peril, and rising waters as winter gives way to a 100-year-flood.

“Until this day, the villagers had considered the Bella Bella a friendly, gentle presence. It would never hurt them. Now it was as though someone they thought they knew well, someone they loved and trusted, had turned on them,” the villagers think as they load sandbag after sandbag, hoping it will be enough.

Penny, whose books often have an artistic or literary signpost, chooses “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” for her text: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain…” That phrase, “all truth with malice in it” echoes throughout both the mystery and the subplots. 

She’s just as insightful about the corrosive effects about cancel culture as she is at plotting a tangle for her good detective to unsnarl: “Tweet after tweet. Comment, reply. Like some demented call and response. A liturgy gone wrong.”

Three Pines is (if you ignore the murder rate and annual snowfall) a cozy place to live, but Penny’s books can’t be dismissed as cozies, not with their philosophical bent and clear-eyed gaze at what happens when the human heart curdles. Readers new to her world would want to start several books back – if not with “Still Life” then perhaps with “How the Light Gets In,” still one of my personal favorites. But “A Better Man” is another insightful examination of her motto: “Goodness exists.”

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