A Great Reckoning by New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny is the 12th mystery featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set in the town of Three Pines. It is nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Novel.
“Every mystery is not a crime. But every crime starts with a mystery.”
In its modern use, the word “mystery” refers to “something that is difficult or impossible to explain.” However, centuries ago it was used in the theological sense to describe a “secret thing, a mystical truth with hidden meaning.” Louise Penny’s novels have always had that ancient touch of “mystery” in them, and in this latest book featuring Armand Gamache, the story’s complex interplay of murder and morality once again mixes with themes of judgment and mercy.
Two sides of a single coin—it is both a blessing and a curse that former inspector Armand Gamache can see both sides at once. He sees this dichotomy everywhere, even reflected in the snowy landscape of Three Pines, the small Québec town Gamache calls home. Up late in the study of the comfortable house he shares with his wife Reine-Marie, Gamache realizes it’s snowing, and as the first flakes of the season fall, he thinks:
And the gray November would be transformed into a bright, sparkling wonderland of skiing and skating. Of snowball fights, and snow forts and snowmen, and angels made of snow that had fallen from the heavens.
It’s a gentle image and a lovely thought, but like many things in this story, what’s light on the surface hides a much darker heart. By the next morning, the flip side of a simple snowfall is revealed.
The flurries had stopped in the night, leaving just a thin layer barely covering the dead autumn leaves. It seemed a netherworld. Neither fall nor winter. The hills that surrounded the village and seemed to guard it from an often hostile world themselves looked hostile. Or, if not actually hostile, at least inhospitable. It was a forest of skeletons. Their branches, gray and bare, were raised as though begging for a mercy they knew would not be granted.
Three Pines is a refuge for Gamache, a place to hide and heal. But, he has always known—as has Reine-Marie—that this is just a temporary retreat from the world and that his work—like God’s—is never done. Now that he only limps when he is tired and the tremors no longer make his hands clumsy and the livid scar on his face does not seem quite so remarkable, Gamache is ready to take the next step on his journey, his Pilgrim’s Progress.
Out of many job offers, the former homicide inspector has accepted a position as the new commander of the Sûreté Academy—an opportunity he believes will allow him to bring an end to the systemic corruption in the police force, sweeping it clean the way Jesus chased the money lenders from the temple, an event chronicled in Matthew 21:12. But, as Gamache makes clear to the young cadets in his care by quoting from another part of Matthew, “A man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
That very thought is at the root of Gamache’s conflict as the story opens and he agonizes over the application of troubled Amelia Choquet, someone his predecessor has already rejected as being an unfit candidate for the Academy. On the surface, Amelia seems an unlikely choice, but Gamache is not so sure. Where others see the skull beneath the skin, he sees the soul beneath the heart. That ability to see the possibility of redemption in everyone, no matter how dark their deeds, is also behind other decisions Gamache makes, including his controversial hiring of a man who was brought down by his own actions, a disgraced cop who was once his best friend.
By inviting Michel Brébeuf back into his “house,” Gamache is holding open a door for redemption as well as providing his students an example of the moral ruin he has become. It’s an act of grace, but Gamache has made poor choices before, and even those closest to him are left wondering if the decisions he’s making in his new role are mistakes. Those who have never liked him point to his choices as proof he is not the man he appears to be.
Sylvain Rancoeur has always declared that Chief Inspector Gamache was a weak man who hid it well behind a thin face often mistaken for wisdom.
“His one real talent is fooling others into believing that he has talent,” the head of the Sûreté had proclaimed more than once. “Armand Gamache, filled with integrity and courage. Bullshit. You know why he hates me? Because I know him for what he is.”
But, nothing—as Gamache would be the first to admit—is that simple, and there is always more to a man than his surface suggests. So when a bad man meets with a moral reckoning, it is up to the former homicide investigator to look beneath the obvious and to both solve the mystery and discern the “hidden meaning” beneath the obvious crime.
There is another crime here, one that has resonated in Gamache’s life since childhood. How that crime fits into the present story is part of the “mystery” at work here, and it is bittersweet and beautiful—much like A Great Reckoning.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.