A Better Man by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
The latest installment of the beloved Inspector Gamache series is a bit disappointing, to be honest. I loved every one of her books until Glass Houses which I thought was terrible. After that came Kingdom of the Blind which was gratifyingly back to Penny’s typical level of excellence. Unfortunately, A Better Man appears to be a regression. It’s a decent story — Gamache and crew try to find a missing, frequently abused, woman and, eventually, identify her murderer. In the background is the threat of an every one-hundred-years flood, Gamache’s demotion to Head of Homicide after a nine month suspension, and the potential clash between Gamache and Beauvoir for the three overlapping weeks where they both wear the same title. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written, repetitive, and trite.

The book is overly emotional — many pages are devoted to Gamache and Beauvoir imagining their own feelings had it been their daughter who had been abused and eventually murdered. And while I love Gamache’s calm, steady, and kind manner, I swear that word kindness was presented multiple times on each page. It was as though Penny didn’t trust her readers to get the message and felt she had to repeat it over and over again. Or maybe she just didn’t have enough plot to fill the pages.

It was not a hard book to read — her writing style is clean and the plot twists were interesting. There were a few scenes in Three Pines which I always enjoy, but even there I think her characters have run their course — there is nothing new, and watching all of the hand wringing has become boring.

She also included a fairly shallow portrayal of a woman named Dominica Oddly — an all-powerful online art critic who, using her extremely popular online presence, could build or destroy artists with a single post. Oddly’s description was “wild black woman in dreadlocks and combat boots,” but she was given no further depth. This was combined with some plot around the dangers of social media with two tweet storms causing real pain for two of the characters. I feel like Penny is trying to update her fictional world but doesn’t have enough real understanding of it herself to give the characters the kind of depth she has been so successful with.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series — the 14th)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Overall reading pleasure: 5/5

I’m (very, very) happy to say that this latest Inspector Gamache mystery is back to the high standards of the first 12. I thought the last book — Glass Houses — was incredibly disappointing.

This installment merges two stories: Gamache, Myrna, and a Dr. Seussian builder named Benedict are named as liquidators (think executors) of Bertha Baumgartner’s estate — a woman none of them knows. The will is odd, to say the least, and the almost immediate murder of one of the beneficiaries adds some definite tension! At the same time, a temporarily suspended Gamache is desperately trying to track down the last bit of carfentanil that he had to let slip in order to bust the drug ring in the last book. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than Fentanyl, itself 100 times more potent than Heroin.

This is not your typical mystery series — it’s character driven but they aren’t just any characters. They are the idealized versions of the people you wish would populate your life. None of them are average or really have any annoying faults at all (though some do pretend). They are smart, capable, witty, loving, interesting, and always do and say the exact right things at the right time. In these books, kindness, friendship, love, and hope manage to take on the grit and grime of crime on a massive scale and actually win. Sure, it’s just a fairy tale … but such a nice one!

While I have a few issues with the plot, this is simply a book that is impossible to put down. The writing is succinct with great dialog and beautifully distilled principles, descriptions, and action. Character driven with lots of intriguing psychological and philosophical driving forces.

As an aside, Ruth, the longstanding and crotchety old poet, has been getting the credit for the acronym FINE (“F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”) — I just realized that the true credit goes to an Aerosmith song from 1989!

A few quotes I liked:
About a man with dementia: “For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart”

“Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.”

“Four statements lead to wisdom: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” (Gamache’s favorite — repeated in most of the books)

Poetry line: “Who hurt you once so far beyond repair / that you would greet each overture with curling lip.”