Book review: A Better Man

A Better ManA Better Man
by  Louise Penny
Macmillan/Minotaur Books

448 pages



A Better Man by Louise Penny is the latest addition to the #1 New York Times bestselling series starring Armand Gamache.

She has done it again. With a vengeance. Take the same backwater in Québec, the same core of main characters, and write fifteen crime stories with that. You will probably end up with predictable plots. But Louise Penny doesn’t. Not ever. A Better Man is here to prove it. Once more.

After experiencing difficult developments in her personal life, Louise Penny offers her readers a new book full of transitions: Jean-Guy Beauvoir has had enough of the pain received and inflicted in his job in the Sûreté de Québec. He is now preparing to leave with his young family and settle in Paris.

Before that, he has to solve one last case, this time in tandem with his father-in-law, Armand Gamache, who is preparing to get back to his former position as the head of Sûreté. After the hardest months in his career. With all they have been through together, this could become an explosive situation.

Plus, the murder they are investigating rings too close to their own lives, challenging both to deal with it without being emotionally involved. But can you remain neutral and detached when a father realizes his pregnant daughter is found dead? And when your dearest one, your daughter, or your wife, is herself pregnant?

Another character finds herself at a crossroads. The painter Clara. Just like Gamache, she has to face cruel reactions to her work on social media. This could be the end of her career. Or a new beginning.

How will they all emerge from the present crisis? As bitter people? Better people?

Will their world even survive? Three Pines, Québec, is definitely not a sheltered place. Climate change is threatening it in this fifteenth volume in the series. With catastrophic flooding.

Louise Penny is a mystery in herself. Once again, she managed to deliver a unique book, with an original plot. And red herrings. And many twists and layers. Layers that keep getting more involved. If her latest books dealt with drugs in the city, this one focuses on domestic violence. And violence through social media.

At the same time, fans of Three Pines have a new chance to enjoy Penny’s great art at describing characters, the depth of human emotions, as well as landscape.

The sky was grey and stretch and threatened rain. Or sleet. Ice pellets or snow. The dirt road was covered in slush and mud. There were patches of snow on the sodden grass. Villagers out walking their dogs were clumping around in rubber boots and wrapped in layers of clothing, hoping to keep April away from their skin and out of their bones.

It was not possible. Somehow, having survived another bitterly cold Canadian winter, early spring always got them. It was the damp. And the temperature swings. And the illusion and delusion that it must be milder out, surely, by now.

The forest beyond stood like an army of winter wraiths, skeleton arms dangling, limbs clacking together in the breeze.

Woodsmoke drifted from the old fieldstone, brick, clapboard homes. A signal to some higher power. Send help. Send heat. Send a real spring and not this crapfest of slush and freezing, teasing days. Days of snow and warmth.

April in Québec was a month of cruel contrasts. Of sublime afternoons spent sitting outside in the bright sunshine with a glass of wine,  then waking to another foot of snow. A month of muttered curses and mud-caked boots and splattered cars, and dogs rolling, then shaking. So that every front entrance was polka-dotted with muck. On the walls. On the ceilings. On the floors. And people.

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Knowlton, in the Eastern Townships, one of the main places of inspiration for Three Pines. With its lake and quaint old buildings, and its homey bookshop, it exudes peace and quiet. Qualities reflected in the pace of A Better Man. Armand Gamache approaches his investigations with wisdom and contemplation.

Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?

Armand does not hurry. He takes time to look, feel, and think. The writing style itself, with many short sentences and pauses, beautifully conveys the same atmosphere.

And yet, when the time is ripe, the book also contains nerve-wracking suspenseful scenes, where events rush too quickly at the protagonists, with the violence of the Bella Bella river threatening to engulf the nearby villages.

Lovers of this series will also enjoy how the author integrated elements of previous books. And of course, we meet the same characters. Including the poet Ruth. And her duck Rosa—featured with short refrains, another nice little touch that helps keep all the threads together.

Reading another book by Louise Penny is like spending some annual time with good old friends. And age and experience have the potential to make them better. The only bitterness to it, is that we’ll have to wait next year to meet them again.

VERDICT: Louise Penny is a mystery in herself. Once again, for this #15 i the series, she managed to deliver a unique book, with an original plot. And red herrings. And many twists and layers. 

Please go to Criminal Element to read my full featured review

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Thursday Travels #2


Brona, who blog about book at Brona’s Books, is also a fantastic photographer and loves traveling. She invited me to her Thursday Travels meme.
I don’t travel much, but I thought I could give it a try.

Today, Brona highlights landscape.
Here is  a picture I took in Knowlton, in the Eastern Townships (Quebec). This is actually the little city where Louise Penny lives, the author of the great Armand Gamache series, so it’s a bit like Three Pines (since that post, I have read them all) and a Three Pines sign welcomes you!
Which reminds me, I have never yet done a post on my visit, so this could be a taste of it.


This is not far from the great bookstore. I thought this shot gave a great idea of the peace and beauty of the place.



Travel the World In Books: Québec with Louise Penny


Click on the picture to join the fun!

Time to go on the road and now visit Québec. To do it through books, I can only recommend the wonderful mystery series by Louise Penny.
And another recommendation: listen to the audiobooks and choose the narrator Ralph Cosham – alas, Cosham passed away last year, so another narrator has taken over. I was so used to hearing Chief Inpsector Armand Gamache’s voice through Cosham’s voice, it’s going to be tough to adjust!

I discovered Louise Penny and her Inspector Armand Gamache series last year, and I briefly reviewed the 1st volume, Still Life:

Still Life

I’d like to day to present the volumes I have listened to so far this year – long road trips are perfect for that!

 Fatal Grace  The Cruelest Month 

 A Trick of the Light  The Beautiful Mystery 

I believe almost all volumes of the series are set in the tiny isolated Québec village of Three Pines. So even if they are good as stand-alones, I think you can get much more out of them if you read them in order, as you are going to run into the same characters in the books. Not only Armand Gamache, the members of his family and his assistant Jean-Guy Beauvoir, but several inhabitants of this village as well.

I have never traveled that far north, but listening to Penny’s books, I feel I can have a good sense of the place, of its beauty, even in the dead of winter and its snow (and I hate snow and cold). The author is excellent in the description of the rural setting, the landscape, the atmosphere it creates – indeed her mysteries start on the slow side, the time she have you feel the place before getting into the heat of the matter so to speak.

In a small village (and I have personally experienced this first hand in my own French village of 250 inhabitants), everyone knows everyone, and relationships can get tricky, as you can hardly hide your own secrets. But it can also be a healing place. And that’s another strength of Penny’s books, the way she deals with the relationships between characters, and how each evolves from one book to the next – including some complex issues between Armand and Jean-Guy. That’s also I think one reason she does not rush into the murder or whatever happened. She takes time to present to you her characters from the inside, what they are going through now in the light of their past, how they perceive things.

It makes for extremely rich mysteries, where people are just as important as the plot itself. This makes sense then that Gamache’s best tool to solve the mysteries presented to him is the way he listens to people, the way he talks to them and interact with them at the local café, for instance. Armand is indeed an attentive listener, and a man full of compassion and goodness. But he has his own demons to fight, and sometimes they come in the way…

In A Fatal Grace, it’s super cold, as the mysterious CC de Poitiers is found electrocuted right in front of the nose of everyone during the annual curling tournament on the frozen lake of the village, just before Christmas. “And yet no one saw anything. Who could have been insane enough to try such a macabre method of murder—or brilliant enough to succeed?” No one liked her, but still, why murder her? And who would come up with that type of scenario?

We are closer to Easter in The Cruelest Month, a time for renewal, a time to get rid of old enemies and to choose life. So symbolically, some inhabitants of Three Pines decide to organize a seance at the Old Hadley House,  a place that has only brought evil to their place. But symbols and fun disappear dramatically when someone is murdered right in the middle of the seance. To be able to solve this case, Armand Gamache will not only have to face the dark shadows in the basement of this spooky place, but also his own inner ghosts.

A Trick of the Light is the last one I listened to – sometimes I can’t listen to them all in order when I go for a long trip, as they are in high demand in my public library. Ii focuses on the couple of artist painters living in Three Pines: Peter and Clara Morrow. As a painter myself, this added an extra interest for me  – actually art plays an important role in the whole series. The description of the art world, and the paintings themselves, the way people look at them, the emotional impact the paintings have on people, was very well done. Clara has her first solo show at the Montréal Museum. But Lillian, Clara’s old school friend, is found dead in the Morrows’ flower garden during the reception…

There’s a lot in the book about Clara’s painting of the Virgin Mary as an old lady. I would be curious to know which painting inspired Louise Penny. In an interview made in France, we see Louise looking at The Insane Woman by Géricault. Does anyone know if that’s really the painting she had in mind?

Exceptionally, The Beautiful Mystery is NOT set in Three Pines, but an even more isolated place: “the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer”. Because of my previous life, this setting was particularly attractive and I really enjoyed a  lot this mystery, the silence of the place, the Gregorian chant, its history and the murder around an old document. The ambiance of the monastery is particularly well conveyed, good job on your homework Louise!

Louise Penny was inspired by different places in Québec to write her books. For instance see this page on Manoir Hovey (where Louise and her husband Michaela actually married!)  for the #4 (Manoir Bellechasse in the book) I am currently listening to:

A Rule Against Murder

I highly recommend you this series if you not only enjoy mysteries, but great writing and the inner richness found in people below their shadows, and discovering Québec! Have a look also at Louise Penny‘s remarkable website, with many excerpts, questions and study guides, and even pronunciation guide for the names of the characters and the French words (with translation and explanation) she uses from time to time. She has also a very active Facebook page.


Some more books I am going to try to present to you during this Readathon:

  1. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman – book set in London, England
  2. The Buried Giant, by Ishiguro – Japanese Literature