My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading one of Louise Penny's Armand Gamache mysteries is like receiving a warm embrace from a much-loved old friend. It is comfort reading of the highest order.
A Great Reckoning is the twelfth entry in the series. I've read them all - in order, of course. There are none of them that I haven't enjoyed, though some naturally are better than others, but this, in my opinion, is one of the best.
Armand Gamache spent years as the head of homicide in the Sûreté du Québec, and during that time, he discovered that his agency was riddled with corruption. The venality of a powerful cadre within the Sûreté had created an atmosphere of cruelty and criminality that had cost it the trust and respect of the public. Gamache made it his crusade to clean up the agency and once again make it worthy of public trust. He accomplished his goal, but it almost cost him his life.
He retired from the Sûreté and he and his wife went to live in the little village of Three Pines where he healed from his wounds and where he eventually became bored and began looking for something to do.
He was offered several different jobs but the one that appealed to him was that of commandant of the Sûreté's academy. Realizing that his quest was not truly complete until the academy, too, was purged of bad actors and influences, he accepted the task, and in this book, we see him beginning that new role.
His wife is happy that he will be working at the academy where she believes he will be safe. Little does she know!
Gamache dismisses many of the academy's staff and hires new instructors, but, curiously, he leaves the most brutal and corrupt professor in place. He hopes to gather enough evidence on the man to finally put him away for good and, at the same time, identify the brains behind the operation, a person he believes is someone outside the Sûreté.
But soon that corrupt professor is found dead in his room, a victim of a highly staged murder. Suspicion falls initially upon some of the cadets he had brutalized, but then comes to rest on Gamache himself.
Meanwhile, back in Three Pines, the villagers, including Madame Gamache, are busy sorting through desiccated newspapers, catalogs, magazines, and other papers that were stuffed into the walls of what is now the bistro as insulation a century earlier. The papers were pulled out and saved during a renovation. How this endeavor somehow connects up with events at the academy is at the heart of this story of lost innocence - the innocence of the village's sons who marched off to war a century before and never came home and the betrayed innocence of academy cadets, some of whom seem at first glance not very innocent at all.
As always with Penny's crime novels, this is very much a character-driven story. We get to know the characters with all their flaws and humanity and they engage our emotions so completely that we feel as though we could reach out and touch them. It is the complexities of the relationships that makes it all so real and that makes the reader eager to keep turning those pages to find out what will happen next. We are involved in the plot which Penny weaves together seamlessly.
And at the center of all this is Armand Gamache, surely one of the most humane and human of policemen in all of crime fiction. He understands that kindness is not weakness and that love trumps hate. At the same time, he is implacable as he pursues the evil that pollutes his beloved Sûreté and that has infected the minds of some of the cadets who are the future of the agency.
Then, of course, there are all the quirky Three Pines characters that we've come to know and love over the years: the cranky old poet, the bookstore owner, the gay couple who own and run the bistro, the acclaimed artist, and all the rest. Even the dogs.
This is a story that is full of wisdom, forgiveness, kindness, and, yes, grief. It is an absorbing read and it is with regret that one turns that last page. The warm embrace ends and one must return to the cold reality of the world and all of its frustrations and irritations.
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