A truism: Death should play the starring role in crime fiction.
But Louise Penny triples the stakes in “A Better Man,” the 15th installment in Louise Penny’s best-selling and widely acclaimed series featuring Quebec cop Armand Gamache.
In last year’s “Kingdom of the Blind,” Gamache was demoted from his position heading the province’s police. He’s now sharing the position of head of homicide with Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his son-in-law and former second in command.
As the two investigate the apparent murder of pregnant Vivienne Godin and focus on her husband, Carl Tracey, a flood of historic proportions threatens death and destruction to Quebec, including the village of Three Pines, where Gamache and wife Reine-Marie live and in which reside many of Penny’s beloved characters.
Among them is artist Clara Morrow, who confronts the impending death of her self-confidence as critics question her series of miniature oil paintings, a genre new to her work.
Penny, who excels in the quintathlon of fiction—plot, people, prose, place and purpose—raises the ante in each novel, and “A Better Man” not only showcases those skills but also elevates them several levels.
Her storyline takes numerous twists as Gamache and company learn more about the victim, her husband and her father. She draws fully formed and complex characters, writes with style and sensitivity, deepens her portrait of Three Pines and raises profound issues of courage and corruption, morality and menace.
And she sets the table for the next installment, which likely will feature another major alteration in relationships.
Never static, always shifting and endlessly rewarding, her novels engage intellect and emotion simultaneously while consistently avoiding fake sentiment and cheap trickery.
Like her entire canon, “A Better Man”—steeped in humanity and rendered with grace—vividly displays the splendor of one of contemporary fiction’s best practitioners.
Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.