Saturday, March 9, 2013

Subterranean Mysteries: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Procedurals

Some feeling that had once between human and natural had twisted. Become grotesque. Had turned sour and corrosive until its container had eaten away. Until the human barely existed.

Louise Penny, The Cruellest Month.

Louise Penny is a master at articulating and exploring corrosive emotions – jealously, bitterness, hatred and revenge – as well as joy and grief. The resolution of a murder by Chief Inspector of Homicide, Armand Gamache and his team, which she expertly accomplishes, is what garners to Penny legions of readers. What I find most compelling about her work is not discovering the identity of the murderer but how she explores the range of emotions in the character of the empathetic Gamache. She goes even further in examining the emotional dynamics between him, his team and his superiors, and the captivating denizens of the hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern Townships. They feature in all of Penny’s eight novels except her most recent, The Beautiful Mystery (Minotaur, 2012).

In her debut novel, Still Life, Penny reveals a piece of information about Gamache that powerfully reverberates throughout the subsequent novels. He broke rank by investigating a senior officer in the Sûreté du Quebec who had ordered the murder of natives. The officer was convicted and he and his friends on the force are determined to destroy Gamache. Although Gamache has achieved an almost perfect record in solving homicides, he will never be promoted and has been excluded from the confidences of the top inner circle, something that Gamache fully understands given that actions have consequences. Nonetheless, he is a contented man, happily married and maintains a good relationship with his adult son and daughter. Penny hints in the first two novels that there may be agents de provocateurs in Gamache’s team who are working to undermine him. By the third novel, The Cruellest Month, I found the tension so gripping that I skipped ahead not to find out the identity of the killer but to those passages about how this subplot would play out. Then I was able to return my attention to murder investigation itself.

Gamache is sometimes compared with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Pirot, but PD James’s Adam Dalgliesh is a more convincing analogy. Both are compassionate and erudite, both have an appreciation of poetry, and Gamache has an understanding of art. As an investigator, Gamache is intuitive as he gathers evidence by “collect[ing] emotions” as they turn rancid, and he carefully observes and listens to people. He has “kindly eyes” that, as his loyal lieutenant, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, observes is both his greatest strength and greatest weakness. He wins the trust of suspects and yet in one investigation, he made in his words a “terrible, terrible mistake” by compiling evidence against a suspect who may have been wrongfully convicted. In the subsequent novel, Bury Your Dead, his misgivings about the case prompt him to ask Beauvoir to review the evidence and conduct further interviews with surprising results. Moreover, his loyalty to a friend is horribly misplaced when that individual sought to destroy his reputation in part because Gamache was a happy person even though as a young boy he experienced profound grief when he lost both of his parents to an automobile accident. Gamache’s personal history, as well as that of his father during the Second World War, is one of the pleasures found in reading this novel.

author Louise Penny
In Still Life, when Penny introduces us to the community members that inhabits the idyllic Three Pines, she explores their emotional lives and meticulously plots clues that she develops in later novels. She is particularly interested in investigating the jealousy of a distinguished visual artist who has not crossed the line yet but Gamache, the collector of emotions, believes he could. In a later novel, The Murder Stone, which is mainly set in a luxurious chateau, Armand and his wife Riene-Marie, are on holidays. Their fellow guests include the wealthy but rancorous Finney family who are there to pay tribute to their late father. One member of that family is the jealous artist from Three Pines, and after the murder of one of its members, Gamache’s investigation leads him to explore the familial tensions that have their origin in the early lives of the Finney siblings and their relationship with their father. We have a greater understanding of that jealousy which turns rancid in the later Trick of the Light, not in a murder but in a betrayal that destroys a relationship. In her eighth installment, The Beautiful Mystery, Penny locates her narrative in an isolated monastery in northern Quebec, one that can only be reached by plane or by boat where two dozen monks live, the last vestiges of the Gilbertine order that departed from Europe during the Inquisition. The “beautiful mystery” refers to the Gregorian chant, plainsong. Their seclusion ended when they made a recording of their chants which became an international sensation. But that success has fractured the community and culminated in the murder of the choirmaster who was the moving force behind this hit. Gamache and Beauvoir are called to this remote site to investigate, and in a religious order that except for singing has maintained a rule of silence, a condition which presents a challenge to the officers even though the abbot releases the monks from their code of silence.

Like the previous novels, the murder mystery is secondary to the emotional dynamics between Gamache and his fragile surrogate son Beauvoir. In Bury Your Dead, Gamache, who is on leave recovering from physical and psychological injuries, reveals to his retired mentor through a series of flashbacks that because of his mistake in judgment both men were involved in an aborted shootout with a gang of terrorists that killed one officer and wounded several others, including Gamache and Beauvoir. In Trick of the Light, Penny suggests that Beauvoir, who almost died in the attack, might be suffering from more serious emotional scars given his addiction to a pain killer and his compulsive need to watch a YouTube video of that ghastly firefight. In The Beautiful Mystery, the fallout from that traumatic event continues as Beauvoir’s private demons threaten to overwhelm him, particularly after the head of the Sûreté, Chief Inspector Francoeur, an avowed enemy of Gamache, arrives at the abbey. Like Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello, Francoeur is a schemer and a manipulator. He has thoroughly familiarized himself with Beauvoir’s professional and personal life in order to undercut the vulnerable officer’s loyalty to Gamache and evoke bitterness toward his mentor thereby driving a wedge between them in a significant step toward destroying the Gamache’s career. Gamache astutely recognizes that his chief’s “greatest gift was bringing out the worst in people. However well-hidden that demon. Francoeur would find it. And free it. And feed it. Until it consumed its host, and become the man.” The mystery is resolved but the harrowing rift between Gamache and Beauvoir is what the reader most vividly remembers. That potential schism promises to be a central motif in the next Inspector Gamache novel.

(photo by Keith Penner)
 – Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit


  1. Hello,

    I am puzzled by the acceptance of Three Pines as the scene of so many murders/crimes, when the village is touted to be so peaceful that it does not even need a police presence.

    I also wonder how the abbey in The Beautiful Mystery can have been such a secret and unknown to the world at the same time that the recruiting of new monks took place over the years, and while goods were being exchanged with other abbeys. They also seemed to have regular contact with the boatman.

    Is this simplistic or am I simpleminded?

  2. Did I read correctly that in the first book Gamache mentions that his mother awoke to her "husband of 50 years" having died in his sleep but later books have his parents killed in a car accident when he was a young boy?