A Better Man is the latest entry in Louise Penny’s long-running mystery series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté de Québec. Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie, a retired librarian, live in the tiny village of Three Pines, which is so small that it does not appear on any map. For readers of the series, the residents of Three Pines become like old friends: the artist Clara, bookstore owner Myrna, Olivier and his partner Gabri, who own the bistro, and the cantankerous old poet Ruth. Penny’s books make you want to move to Three Pines—in spite of the high murder rate for such a tiny town.
Gamache has been demoted as a result of his actions in the previous book, and he is back in his old position as head of homicide, reporting to his former second-in-command, and son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, which is an awkward situation for both of them. Beauvoir is about to leave the Sûreté to take a job in Paris. Catastrophic floods threaten to devastate Québec, and the politicians who were responsible for Gamache’s demotion will not take his advice on how to prevent widespread destruction. Penny’s images of the floods are unforgettable--some of the most powerful images in the whole series.
In the midst of this crisis, a grieving father approaches Gamache. The man’s pregnant daughter, Vivienne, has gone missing, and her father thinks her abusive husband killed her. As Gamache and Beauvoir struggle to prevent the river near Three Pines from flooding, they find Vivienne’s body in the river. The forensic evidence shows that her death was murder, not suicide or an accidental drowning, and everything points to her husband as the killer. But Gamache and Beauvoir cannot find enough evidence to convict him in court. Vivienne’s father becomes increasingly unstable as it looks more and more as if her husband will walk free. The case also becomes personal to Gamache and Beauvoir, since the dead woman had much in common with Annie, Gamache’s daughter and Beauvoir’s wife, who, as it turns out, is also pregnant. Gamache and Beauvoir have to prevent Vivienne’s father from killing her husband. But, as they think of how they would have acted if Annie had been murdered, do they really want to stop him? And then the case takes some unexpected turns, which I will not reveal here.
In a subplot, the artist Clara finds her latest works attacked in social media, and a leading art critic writes a scathing review, which damages her reputation and causes other critics to reassess their earlier positive reaction to her work. Clara wonders if her work was ever any good at all. Any creative person can identify with her feelings. The critic who wrote the damaging review comes to Three Pines to see Clara’s works for herself, and ends up falling in love with the town. This thread will probably continue in later books. One of the important themes of the book is the damage social media can cause to people’s reputations. Gamache has also been attacked in social media for his actions in the previous book, and someone has posted a fake video of him gunning down unarmed teenagers, which of course did not happen. But when the poet Ruth substitutes the video of what really happened, it also causes pain to the families of the police officers who died that day.
This is an excellent entry in Penny’s series. As usual, her themes of compassion, community, and belonging shine through. The dog Fred, who belonged to the murdered woman and now belongs to Gamache, is a great addition to the series. He is based on Penny’s own dog, who recently died. Penny writes lovingly of her dog in the afterword. The dynamic between Gamache and Beauvoir, which has developed throughout the series and taken many twists and turns, is one of the series’ many strengths, and it will be interesting to see what happens with Beauvoir in Paris. I am looking forward to many more visits to Three Pines.
A Better Man is available from the Recreational Reading Collection at the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library.