Louise Penny’s long-awaited new addition to her Armand Gamache novels explores its title in a variety of ways. As with the other stories, the novel’s crime detection plot is almost secondary to the matters of personal growth and relationship. The main story focuses on a lost woman who maybe isn’t lost. While the Quebec Sûreté determines if the case is worth pursuing, they are surrounded by the force of nature that is a sudden Spring thaw. Penny does a marvelous job describing the heaving ice and rushing water that makes the situation so dangerous. Even though we know it is so early in the book that, even when it get scary and harrowing, our heroes will survive, her descriptions make you sit up straight and pay attention.
The rest of the story unfolds from there, with the missing woman found dead in the frigid, rushing water. The story makes its way through the lives of the dear residents of Three Pines, the lives of the officers of the Sûreté, and the lives of Gamache and his family. A sinister theme throughout is the real hatred for Gamach among the political leadership of Quebec. There the solid, yet vulnerable, character of Armand Gamache comes out best. I wonder if he is “The Better Man?” There are other potential candidates! The whole story is an interesting exploration of what makes for character in each person and in relationship.
For a while I thought this novel would be too much about the lives of the characters, and especially about Gamache’s issues with the powers that be and with his own return to the force. But at the end I felt that Penny has really done a marvelous job drawing us into the multitudinous foibles of humanity and what we all can do to be “better” ourselves.