It has long been my habit to try to read each Inspector Gamache book in the month or season it is set, and by happy coincidence A Better Man, the fifteenth book in the series, is set in April. Delayed spring, occasional flooding, and a final snowstorm are all hallmarks of April in my neck of the woods, so I felt right at home with Gamache and the residents of Three Pines.
Structurally we are with Gamache and company for one single case, with stunningly few ties to larger stories in the universe while simultaneously being linked intricately to the books which precede it. In this insular story that plays out over only a few days, Gamache makes his return as head of the homicide department, a job he will temporarily share with Jean-Guy Beauvoir. There are floodwaters rising across Quebec. In the middle of Gamache’s return and the planning for the oncoming natural disaster, a woman’s father approaches a friend for help in finding her.
The search for Vivienne Godin becomes Gamache’s first case back as he is the only senior agent unassigned, and through the course of the book we’re with Gamache as he leads his small team through the search, in preparation for floodwaters, and in surviving the onslaught of negative social media. We trace the case from beginning to end, through moments of success to discovery of great mistakes, and everything in between.
Penny sets out to tell a story focused on Gamache’s parenthood. The missing woman is an only daughter similar in age to Gamache’s Annie. Jean-Guy is leaving the professional and personal nest as he and Annie go through final preparations for their move to Paris and Isabel Lacoste is making her return to the Sûreté following her injuries in Glass Houses. The writing hangs on the profound empathy Gamache displays both for the father of Vivienne Godin, but also for his successors and proteges. That part of the writing does work for me, there are over a dozen books preceding this one which have built a strong, deep knowledge of Gamache. But, there were things that just didn’t work for me – the social media posts that open the chapters for one. Another lacking is in the historical elements of Quebecois culture that Penny usually weaves into her storytelling to provide depth of meaning.
The Gamache books, at their best, are about life and the choices that we make, and what happens to good people when such a harrowing event comes into their lives. A Better Man gets there, but not in the great way I’ve come to expect (it also doesn’t help that I guessed the baddie well before the reveal of how and who and it took the dramatic tension right out of the reading).