This is another in the Armand Gamache series set in Canada. If you have read Penny’s previous books you will expect officers from Surete de Quebec, based in Montreal, but covering a rural hinterland that now includes the village Three Pines. The majority of the characters are from a French background, but have to police over the two main language and the first nations communities. The background to policing is highly politicised and complex, not least because deeper embedded corruption in the police force had developed, been largely defeated, leaving bitterness and a number of enemies for Gamache. He is still supported by his family, village and a close police team. But all are vulnerable to attack.

This episode opens with online attacks on both artist Clara Morrow and Gamache. Raising the question: is a reputation true or false and can a person stand up to constant attacks from others without damage? If others intervene to stop abuse does this feed the fire, solve the problem, or make it worse? Ultimately, people have to live with themselves and their own decisions and standards. Yes, a typical Penny realisation and discussion of behaviour and standards, one that permeates all her novels, all set in a world where nothing is perfect. Clara’s painful problems will quietly underlie the “police” issues in this novel.

Gamache has refused to retire and has been demoted to Chief Inspector of Homicide – a role already held by John-Guy Beauvoir, a “junior” he has mentored, but now a friend and his son-in-law. He will quietly accept the second-in-command role. This will lead him to act as adviser to the emergency planning team – dealing with early thaw and imminent “100 year flooding”. The true nature of toxic politics and the risks inherent to the wider communities are made clear as the “team” has to balance risk and action in a scenario where everything has a cost. This is a large mirror of the decisions that Gamache had previously been making as a senior police office on a smaller but regular basis.

With his advice not wanted or taken, he will be involved in investigating the disappearance of a young pregnant woman. There is a strong suspicion that she is dead Allegations of spousal abuse left unresolved by the police causes complications and pressures. A trial of a suspect will be halted on “legal” grounds – a decision that pushes at the bounds of jurisprudence on issues of legal searches both physical and of computer data sets. Police actions will have potentially disastrous long term implications. Death was not pleasant for those who lost her, but there will be a “resolution” of sorts.

So once more Penny offers a multi layered crime procedural – strong on place, people and the unravelling of deeper underlying issues and emotions of a seemingly simple crime. The strength her novels – on top of all the above extremely well executed – is the deep understanding of and compassion for people. Over the Gamache series her people gain experiences and grow, but behind that is the balancing of the good and bad things in their lives – and the ability of Gamache and his close team to cope with working in truly dreadful and potentially sole-destroying places, to survive through the strong support of families, friends and community.

Some might say that the depiction of this positive is the weakness of her novels; others will find it affirmative and encouraging. This one, while covering so much, seems to be a “holding” novel as key characters begin to move on to other things. Perhaps reflecting times in a life where people are inundated with challenges, seemingly both large and small, at the same time. Penny’s novels are never “light” crime, neither are they gory. But they ask serious questions of the reader that have wider than “crime” application.

Hilary White 5/5

A Better Man by Louise Penny
Sphere 9780751566635 hbk Aug 2019