Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $28.99
“A Great Reckoning” is the twelfth book in Canadian author Louise Penny’s emotionally dense series. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is no longer a chief inspector. This time around, following the explosive uncovering of corruption and venality in the police department, which put him in personal peril, Armand is the commander of the elite Sûreté academy. Although it is a position he purposely chose, it is not the soft, next-step-to-retirement job it appears to be. It is instead the next step in his attempt to rout out the last elements of corruption.
The book opens enigmatically with Armand reviewing dossiers, putting them in rejection and acceptance piles. One dossier especially makes him anxious. We don’t know what they represent for a while. In fact, it is a long time before we know what causes Armand such anguish. With this setup, Penny puts forth an overarching heavy cloud from the start.
Before the new term begins, Armand sets about firing and hiring professors for the academy. Among the new hires is Michel Brébeuf, once Armand’s best friend and now a disgraced ex-police administrator. Armand wants Michel to atone for his past sins by serving as a moral example to the academy’s cadets. Also onboard is Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Armand’s former second-in-command and now his beloved son-in-law.
Four cadets, two third-years and two new recruits, are highlighted. The previous administration at the academy was bent on producing vicious, bullying types to further carry out the reign of intimidation and back alley dealings with criminal elements. The only female in the group, 18-year-old Amelia Choquet, is prickly, armored, intelligent, and a loner. But she, more so than the others, is at the center of every puzzle Penny puts forth.
In an attempt to both protect and test the four cadets, Armand takes them to Three Pines, the almost magical little village where he and his wife, Reine-Marie, live. He gives them a puzzle to solve. While renovating the charming village bistro, a strange map was discovered. It seems both sophisticated and artless at the same time. There are tiny pictures of a pyramid, a snowman, and the iconic three pine trees that still exist on the village green. What was the purpose of the map? Why was it hidden in the wall? The four cadets begin their investigation but soon school studies shove the project aside.
One professor, the former second-in-command of the academy, has not been sacked. Serge Leduc, “The Duke,” is a little man with a Napoleonic attitude. He preens himself on the respect and fear he induces in the cadets. Gamache claims he is collecting more evidence of Leduc’s participation in the irregularities and problems concerning the academy before he tackles him. For instance, the new academy building was constructed a few years ago on land the enclosing town had earmarked for a community center for their children, creating ill will from the beginning, when another plot could have done as well.
If you are already a fan of Penny’s series, then rest assured that all the quirky and lovable characters from Three Pines make an appearance. They provide unconditional support and comfort to Armand and his schemes. Most significantly, grumpy poet Ruth is back with her foul-mouthed duck, Rosa.
Finally, there is a murder. The investigation is carried out by a former protégé, Inspector Isabelle Lacoste, with the help of Jean-Guy, and the outside oversight of a Mountie, Deputy Commissioner Gélinas. Why isn’t Armand helping? Because he’s a potential suspect.
What does the village map have to do with the murder? A copy is found in the victim’s room. Is it related to the victim or does it relate a cadet to the victim? Was the victim murdered because of his involvement with the police scandal? At least we know the killer wasn’t Ruth’s duck. She is the one of the few without a secret to conceal.
Penny holds each character in the palm of her hand, carefully examines all aspects of her or his personality, and lovingly (even with the villains) displays their strengths and flaws. This is why so many readers love her. Penny’s books move like molasses in comparison to the roller coaster thrillers that are popular today. But Penny gives you her heart. Can other writers claim the same?