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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny #crimefiction

great-reckoningLouise Penny has for a few years now been one of my favourite crime writers with her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  When we got to book number 10 I was worried she was about to bring the series to an end since this saw the denouement of a long running theme of the Chief’s battle against the forces of evil that lay at the heart of the judicial and political establishment. But in book 11, The Long Way Home, she came up with a plot to keep him occupied in his retirement to the delightful small village of Three Pines, where so many of his investigations had led. As nifty as a device this was, it had limited scope I thought – this is a village so small it doesn’t even appear on a map so it would stretch credulity too far to keep conjuring up crime incidents for Gamache to investigate. I needn’t have been concerned however for Penny has devised a far more credible new role for the Chief in her newest episode in the series A Great Reckoning.

This novel sees Gamache start a new job as head of the Sûreté academy, the body that trains new officers for the force. Gamache is determined to clean up some of its less desirable practices which have resulted in a bunch of new recruits who are overly aggressive and below the standards Gamache expects from Sûreté officers. His clean-up campaign will see him go head to head with some of the established leaders of the academy who are none too pleased with the changes. It also re-unites him with one of his oldest friends, a now-disgraced former head of the Sûreté, a man who has good reason to dislike Gamache as the man who brought about his demise. When one of the Professors at the Academy is found murdered, the spotlight turns on several of the staff, including Gamache. Questions are raised about just how far would he go to eradicate corruption and what exactly is his relationship with Amelia Choquet, one of the new cadets who with her tattooed limbs and pierced nostrils and lips looks more like one of the people a Sûreté officer would question as a suspect than recruit to their ranks.

There is another mystery that requires Gamache’s attention. An intricate old map is found hidden in the walls of the bistro in Three Pines. The villagers become more and more intrigued by this artefact. Who was the mapmaker and what was the purpose? Why did the mapmaker include a pyramid, a snowman and a cow and why was does the stained glass window in he village church feature the a soldier carrying the map? Challenges and questions Gamache gives to four of the cadets as an exercise in the investigation skills they will require once on active duty. Along the way he gives them an object lesson in how to be a skilled – and compassionate investigator, quoting from Jonathan Swift and Marcus Aurelius in what seems to be one of the tenets guiding his own life:

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane

And thats one of the things I admire most about the Gamache series. The plots are generally good (the one in he Great Reckoning isn’t as compelling as previous titles but is still executed flawlessly) and the characterisation superb. But what lifts this above the ordinary crime novel is the investment made to show Gamache as a rounded man capable of great depth of understanding, humanity and humility. Qualities which he tries to pass onto his family, friends and those under his wing as he does in his end of year address to the Academy staff and students:

We are all of us marred and scarred and imperfect. We make mistakes. We do things we deeply regret. We are tempted and sometimes we give into that temptation. Not because we are bad or weak but because we are human. We are a crowd of faults. But know this… There is always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it and to take it.

Wise words from a man who is often accused of arrogance, of thinking he knows better than anyone else what to do in a crisis situation. But essentially he is a man who recognises he makes mistakes in his quest to root out wrong doing and isn’t afraid to admit it to others when the time is right.

You could do worse than read The Great Reckoning not just as an example of quality, thoughtful crime fiction but  as a study in humanity and true leadership. The extra good news is that towards the end of the book there is a hint he is going to move on to a new role. My guess he will become head honcho of the Quebec Sûreté but Louise Penny could have another surprise up her sleeve.

Footnotes

Author: The Great Reckoning is book 11 in the series by Louise Penny

Published: 2016 by Little, Brown Book Group UK

Length: 400 pages

My copy: Provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

 

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Blacklands

Blacklands is an award-winning debut work by Belinda Bauer, the first title in a trilogy of crime novels set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. Told mainly from the perspective of twelve year old Steven Lamb, it’s a psychological suspense tale rather than a whodunnit. We know almost from the start who committed the crime. We know also that he was caught and brought to justice. But given the opportunity is he ready to kill again? And will Steven be the unwitting trigger?

Clearly this is not your typical crime novel. It was never in fact designed to be a crime novel since Bauer’s original intention was for the story to be simply about a boy and his grandmother.  But she became fascinated by the idea that something dreadful had happened to Steven’s family that was still affecting them twenty years later.  The ‘something dreadful’ turns out to be the disappearance of Steven’s uncle Billy. Everyone in his village believed the young boy was killed by serial murderer Arnold Avery and buried on the desolate moor like the six other children he abducted.  But Billy’s body was never found and Avery has never disclosed where he buried the body.  Billy’s mother (Steven’s gran) is so convinced he is still alive she stands in the window of her home every day, watching for him to walk up the street.

Steven’s family life is not a happy one even without the shadow cast by the unresolved crime.  His father abandoned him and his younger brother many years earlier. Steven yearns for a real dad  but few of the “uncles’ who make their appearance have stuck around for very long. His home is a mess with mildew on the walls and mushrooms growing on the bathroom floor. Money is scarce. The hoodies lie in wait to beat up Steven whenever they can. His one and only friend betrays him.

If only Steven can find Billy’s body he believes his suffering and that of his family will be at an end. Every weekend he goes out in secret to dig on the moorland in search of the hidden body. Without any clues he can’t hope to make much progress.  His solution is to contact the man who knows the location of Billy’s grave. His letters to Arnold Avery turn into a dangerous cat and mouse game in which Steven’s own life is imperiled.

It seems a little incredulous that a twelve year old would be able to engage in correspondence with a man serving life without questions being raised by prison authorities. But Bauer cleverly gets around this by making Steven’s identity part of a riddle Avery must solve. Equally deft is her characterisation of Steven. She makes him convincingly naive but with a high level of natural intelligence; a boy who just wants to do the right thing in the only way he knows how. A boy that you want to succeed.

The result is a novel that is disturbingly good. It doesn’t rely on intricate plotting or the skills of a super sleuth; just a good story and some believable characters. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Belinda Bauer but it won’t be the last.

Endnotes

Belinda Bauer was born in England and grew up there and in South Africa. She currently lives in Wales (not too far from my home in fact). She worked as a journalist and then as a screenwriter, winning the Carl Foreman Bafta for her first screenplay, ‘The Locker Room’.  Blacklands, her first novel, was published  in January 2010 and went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2010.

Her most recent novel, published earlier this year is The Shut Eye

Discover more about Belinda Bauer at her website 

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