Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Whenever the author’s name on the book jacket is in larger type than the title, you know you’ve got a writer who delivers the goods. So it is with Louise Penny and her latest Inspector Gamache mystery, The Nature of the Beast. Penny has earned her font size. Beginning with Still Life, which was first published in Britain in 2005, the now eleven Gamache novels habitually focus on the small village of Three Pines, Quebec, an idyllic spot that appears on no map and is inhabited by a variety of multifaceted people who have chosen this village as a personal haven—from the psychologist-turned-bookseller woman of colour, to the gay B&B owners, to the irascible but nationally recognized poet with a pet duck, and others. Three Pines also seems to attract murderers.
While at first, Penny seems to be channeling Agatha Christie, with Inspector Gamache serving as a more official Miss Marple and Three Pines standing in for the English village of St. Mary Meade, this is not quite the case. Rural Quebec has longer, darker shadows than the bright English countryside, and the residents of Three Pines are never merely dotty or genteel. While playing to the crowd a bit by presenting characters with entertaining idiosyncrasies, Penny does a wonderful job of digging into the often tortured recesses of their individual emotional states as well, going far beyond what Christie would have dared. The result is a series of books one consumes avidly.
In this latest mystery, Gamache, now retired from the Sûreté du Québec, has chosen to live in Three Pines, having found its atmosphere comfortable and its inhabitants amiable—and more than a little bit entertaining. But the death of a young boy shatters his repose. Laurent was nine years old and liked to exaggerate, so much so that people had stopped taking him seriously. So, when he runs breathlessly up to Gamache at the village’s bistro to tell a tale of a big gun in the woods, no one believes him. The next day, little Laurent is found dead. And Gamache is convinced it wasn’t an accident. And then another death. This time it’s the director of the local playhouse, whose latest production is a comedy that may have been written by an infamous serial killer. Can the deaths possibly be connected?
Though retired, Gamache joins forces with his former subordinate, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is now heading Gamache’s old investigative team at the Sûreté. Motives, grand and petty, are parsed. And then they find the gun. Not just a gun, but a giant cannon with a mysterious inscription on its barrel. But why is it there? And why is it pointed South, toward the U.S.? Someone wanted to keep it hidden—to the point of committing murder.
Two names turn up: Project Babylon and Gerald Bull. Here Penny begins playing with a genuine historical mystery. Canadian engineer Gerald Bull famously built (in Highwater, Quebec) a small-scale prototype of a “supergun” capable of launching a projectile into space or shelling targets from hundreds of miles away. Perhaps because of his subsequent dealings with Saddam Hussein, Bull was assassinated in Brussels, Belgium, in 1990. His killers, however, have never been identified. Penny supplies a few answers, fictional of course. And while she dips her toes into the murky waters of international intrigue, Penny as always manages to keep the focus on the intimate lives of her characters—on deeply felt personal pain, troubled relationships, conflicted emotions, and, above all, caustic, soul-devouring secrets. The nature of the beast, indeed.
The Nature of the Beast is published by St. Martin's Press.