“It’s a little humbling to realize the pedestal isn’t quite so high after all.” This confession by beloved Armand Gamache, near the climax of the alchemy of prose and humanity called A Great Reckoning, illuminates the genius of genre-busting author Louise Penny.
First things first; a precis of plot. Gamache is continuing his effort to clean up the corruption in the law enforcement organization to which he has devoted and for which he has risked his life, now taking over as commander of Surete Academy, when irascible, middle-finger-flashing poet, Ruth, presents him with a map which had long been hidden in the walls of Gabri & Olivier’s Three Pines bistro, a copy of which ends up in the bedside table of a professor found dead at the Academy, a murder for which Armand, his lifelong best friend and mortal enemy, Brebeuf, and four young cadets for whom Armand feels guiltily responsible, having given them copies of the map to investigate as an exercise, become suspects. The connections between the murder, the provenance of the map, a stained glass window in the Three Pines chapel, the four cadets and their relationship to the murdered professor and Armand, and the secrets, shames, and suspicions in the histories of everyone involved make for a riveting twelfth installment in Ms. Penny’s Gamache series.
Such is Ms. Penny’s authorial acumen, as with every entry in this series, you need not have read the preceding Gamache novels to understand, enjoy, or appreciate this one. That said, for those of us who have done, each return to Three Pines, each visit with its community of compelling characters who manage to be both clamorous and concordant is like a reunion with treasured friends during which one is reminded of all they’ve been and been through, while marvelling and catching up with where they are now and who they’ve become. The real magic of the spells woven by Ms. Penny though, is the ways in which the characters’ journeys — no matter how heightened and outside the realm of most of our daily lives — limn those all too human moments we all experience.
A Great Reckoning manages to move along at cracking-good mystery/whodunnit pace, at the same time layering a literary fiction’s worth of emotional exploration, insight and depth, all in clear, precise, evocative language, full of sentences of lyrical beauty and penetrating observation, too there is often a gentle but incisive wit, and in all of this the reader recognizes their own humanity and experience; because while Ms. Penny’s books may be genre-labeled as mysteries, the real mystery always at their center is how does one manage to remain a decent human being in a world full of pain, evil, danger, and those who have failed at or eschewed decency. Armand Gamache does not run from his flaws or duck his challenges, he stands, he faces, he does his considered and considerable best to be the best he can be, to do the least harm, to navigate with honor, dignity, and grace in a world where such things are not always valued, are not always the path to success, are sometimes used against him.
Armand Gamache is who we would all like to be, who we would all like to emulate, who we would all like to know, and when he falls short, when he faces failure, when he recognizes that although he has striven hard to be upright, honest, and an example, still even those he loves and trusts the most can suspect him of having slipped, failed, erred — well, that’s the human experience, the occasion of “a little humbling to recognize the pedestal isn’t quite so high after all.” That’s gorgeous writing.
My only cavil with this novel is a petty, personal note: I don’t have it in me to be Armand Gamache, nowhere near. I am more unto bad-tempered, tetchy, foul-mouthed, fractious poet, Ruth Zardo, and I should very much like it if she entirely took over an installment or two. I can never get enough of her. And her duck.
This is one of my favorites of the Gamache series, and I say that having loved every one. If you are a fan of good writing, literary fiction, mysteries, beautiful sentences, fascinating characters, surprising plotting, books you cancel plans for and can’t put down, and yet you haven’t started reading Louise Penny, you must. Start here with A Great Reckoning, or, go back to the beginning of the series. I promise you, you will not be disappointed and I bet, like me, you will have many moments of, “Aha! I have felt that very thing and she has put it into words!” For, like Gamache, Ms. Penny is uncannily attuned to the human condition, an astute observer of the experience of being, and her writing is both a delight and a revelation of self. READ HER.
And while you’re at it, don’t neglect the Acknowledgments at the end of the book (which I always read first) where Ms. Penny gives evidence of just how close is her heart and soul to that of beloved Gamache. I don’t know her at all, but she seems to be every bit the wonderful person he is, and, she thanks her “astonishing editor”, Hope Dellon, for being a great friend and checking in to see how Ms. Penny was doing on a personal level. I do know Hope Dellon, who I met through Twitter because of my admiration for Ms. Penny’s work, and in the years since, she has been a good friend to me, offering encouragement and affirmation, checking in and urging forward, onward, and rising from her own sick-bed to meet me for lunch when I was visiting New York; they are both lucky to know one another and it gives this reader comfort to know the world is populated by people like Louise Penny and Hope Dellon, people of honor, grace, dignity, and decency. For me, they both stand on pedestals quite high, indeed.
I pre-ordered my copy of A GREAT RECKONING from The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], my independent bookstore here in Frederick, Maryland. At the same time, I reserved a copy at the library and they mistakenly gave it to me a week early, so I have been sitting on this excitement for a week — which nearly did me in! Now, if only someone would likewise slip me an early copy of Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH.