Chief Inspector Armand Gamache must wrestle with the core of his being in this next novel of Louise Penny’s ongoing series. The piece opens with Gamache in Quebec City, ready to enjoy a winter carnival. He’s on leave, as is the rest of his Sûreté du Québec Homicide squad, after a brutal terror attack left many dead. While taking the time to hone his knowledge of Quebec history, the murder of local amateur archeologist, Augustin Renaud, creates quite the buzz. Found at the Literary and Historical Society, Renaud was said to have been trying to unearth the body of Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. Eager to offer his assistance, Gamache gains access to the investigation and begins to poke around, while also using his mentor and long-time friend to discuss matters of policing and personal politics. Without needing his compatriots, Gamache sends Inspector Beauvoir back to Three Pines to covertly reexamine the case of local resident, Olivier Brulé, whom series readers will know was arrested and convicted of murder at the end of the previous novel. Could it be that Olivier is innocent after all, as his partner, Gabri, has been touting in daily letters to the Chief Inspector? While there, Beauvoir interacts with Three Pines residents, many of whom have nothing but disdain for this man who chose not to support their friend. Beauvoir recounts to the locals some of the happenings related to the aforementioned terror event, explaining the step-by-step process that had Gamache in the middle of trying to save one of his new agents without ceding complete control to a farmer with a mission. In the present case, Gamache is trying to wrestle with the idea of his connection to the Quebecois, something that parallels a nationalism many feel for their country. Penny explores this struggle throughout, pushing her protagonist into the middle as he tries to find not only the killer, but to examine how the Literary and Historical Society—an Anglophone organization in the heart of French Quebec—has survived this long and what take they have had on Champlain and his role in Quebec’s founding. With three criminal investigations on the go within the single narrative, there is much to discover and explore, but nothing will be clear-cut, nor will happy endings be bountiful. Penny has really pushed the reader to their limits with this one, seeking to juggle multiple crimes in a series of time periods. Recommended to series fans who have a great handle on the characters and writing style. At this point, I would suggest new readers begin where the series began and progress accordingly.
Louise Penny has taken a significant gamble at this point in the series and I can see where some might bemoan her decision, though I do not entirely agree with the criticism. This story straddles three cases, all of which reveal themselves in the narrative, though their timelines differ greatly. Additionally, Penny seeks to explore Quebec nationalism and paint her protagonist into a corner as he works in Quebec City. Let us first explore the characters who appear and evolve on the page, then tackle some of the narrative and other parts of this complicated novel. Gamache has grown so much over the past few novels that the series reader might not expect as much development as can be found in this sixth piece. Not only does the reader discover some of Gamache’s deeply held beliefs as a Quebecois, but also what drives him as a leader and a man. Penny does well to explore these most sensitive aspects of her protagonist, without pulling him from the job for which readers have come to love him. The other characters prove to be a mish-mash, receiving some minor development, but Jean Guy Beauvoir deserves a few lines here. His icy demeanour is one that series readers know well, so tossing him into the Three Pines community without the shield of Gamache was sure to prove entertaining. Beauvoir forged into the area, armed with trying to see if his own notions about the guilt of one resident could stand after exploring some evidence. This also forced him to engage with the locals, thereby testing his ability to work independently and stop the incessant judging of all things Anglophone. Penny does a decent job of coaxing out some development with this plot line. The story is actually three, as mentioned before. While I thoroughly enjoyed them all, I felt throughout that the ‘terror cell’ should have been its own story (novel or novella), as it kept things somewhat confusing. While series readers are an intelligent bunch and I am the last person to criticise an bestselling author, I felt things got too clouded throughout. Penny would have done well to explore the terror cell theme in a stand-alone piece (#5.5?) and allow oblique reference to it in this piece, rather than trying to juggle everything. Gamache still ends up in Quebec City for this novel, Beauvoir is still able to return to Three Pines on his own, but the reader has that intense storyline out of the way and free from constant flashbacks. A throughly enriching experience can be found in this novel, which taps not only into Canadiana, but plunges headlong into the depths of Canadian and Quebec politics on a level that is both complicated and much needed. I applaud the political dignity Penny utilises in this hot potato topic and hope she will not shy away from the Quebecois struggles within her protagonist as the series continues.
Kudos, Madam Penny, for keeping me enthralled. And now…your sole short story in the collection. Let’s have a look!
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons