Book Review

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A great Reckoning, by Louise Penny

This book is possibly somewhat out of the ordinary for British readers, in that it is a crime novel set in neither Britain nor the United States, but in Canada. It was first published in the U.S. and Britain in 2016, so reasonably recent, and the paperback edition I read, ISBN 978-0-7515-5269-0, was published the following year, 2017, by Sphere, London. The main character is a recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté, Armand Gamache, who has been drafted in to run, as Commander, the Sûreté training Academy; the Sûreté, here modelled on the French original, is analogous to a combination of our normal police, Special Branch & MI5. Some of its activities are confined to the Francophone Québec, but the official government website defines it thus: “The Sûreté du Québec, as the national police force, contributes throughout the territory of Québec, to maintaining peace and public order, preserving life, safety and fundamental human rights and protecting property. The Sûreté du Québec also supports the police community, coordinates major police operations, contributes to the integrity of governmental institutions and ensures the safety of transport networks under Québec jurisdiction. … Some of these services are exclusive to the Sûreté du Québec, while others are offered in partnership or in conjunction with police organizations and agencies that share the Sûreté du Québec’s mission.” The first part of this definition is called into question in the book, given that this fictitious version of the Sûreté has latterly been rife with corruption & brutality which, thankfully, does not sit well with some in authority, not least Chief Inspector Gamache himself, but he is aware of the challenge this presents, so it is not an undertaking he embarks upon without a degree of trepidation.

He surprises his superiors by both retaining one professor, Serge Leduc (aka The Duke) who was known to be at the forefront of the excesses Gamache is tasked with eradicating, instead of sending him packing; but also, before he has literally occupied his Commander’s chair, bringing back one of his erstwhile colleagues, Michel Brébeuf, “the man who’d been his best friend, his best man, his confidant and colleague and valued subordinate.”, who was languishing in shame after also succumbing to corruption: “You turned the Sûreté from a strong and brave force into a cesspool, and it has taken many lives and many years to clean it out.” Gamache’s son-in-law, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is also now his second in command, observes internally that “Either decision would be considered ill advised. Together they seemed reckless, verging on lunacy.” So it has to be assumed that Gamache has a plan, and that these decisions were part of it. One of the first major changes Gamache made was a slackening of the harsh discipline that had prevailed hitherto, but he also made the students aware that actions had consequences. All seems to be going well, but before the end of the first term, a murder occurs within the Academy, and after the initial inquiries, Gamache suggests to the Chief Inspector who is conducting the investigation that an outside investigator should be brought in, to vouch for the fairness of the investigation.

It is during this phase that an artefact which has come to light in Gamache’s home village, Three Pines, attains a status of some importance, but its relevance remains unknown for most of the story. The artefact is a map, which was hidden in a wall in one of the buildings in the village which, for unknown reasons initially, doesn’t feature on any maps of the territory. Gamache organises a group of four of the brightest students from different years in the Academy to look into this conundrum, ostensibly as a project to keep them occupied during the ongoing investigation, but it also becomes clear that their interactions will throw light on the power-plays between some of the lecturers and students. After the murder, it transpires that the copy of the map belonging to one of the four students has gone missing, but this is an obvious red herring. Little by little, the history of the village and its earlier inhabitants, to which the map is the key, is revealed as a result of painstaking research. All through the narrative, the reader is kept guessing as to how much Gamache knows, how honourable his motives have been & are, and whether he will succeed in unmasking the killer. It is slightly unusual to encounter a fictional detective, private or State employee, who is as empathetic and reasonable as Gamache, as well as being happily married: the only other one I could nominate, without considerable thought, is Maigret; I really couldn’t say if the French connection (with apologies!) is coincidental or not. At 495 pages, this is quite a long novel, but it moves at quite a steady pace, so it keeps the reader’s attention without any difficulty, and the dénouement is suitably satisfying.

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