The plot of Louise Penny’s 12th Chief Inspector Gamache novel, “A Great Reckoning,” involves the discovery of an intricate old map that’s been stuffed into the walls of the bistro in Three Pines, the village in Quebec where Gamache and his beloved wife, Reine-Marie, keep a house. The map, unearthed during a renovation, depicts the route to the village of Three Pines, but it’s off in strange ways — there’s a snowman in the upper right corner, holding up “a hockey stick in triumph” and pointing to a curious pyramid in another section. There’s an element of Nancy Drew here, but Penny, as ever, has something more ambitious in store.
Gamache has solved many mysteries throughout his 30-odd years as an investigator, but there’s a mystery about the Gamache novels themselves that has long remained unsolved: that is, what to call them? Just try describing the Gamache series to an uninitiated reader and you’ll be flummoxed. These are not “just” suspense stories, police procedurals or crime novels. They’re certainly not cozies, despite their intermittent change of scene from the streets of Quebec to the quaint village of Three Pines.
The Gamache novels are sui generis; they can only be described in adjectives, not categories. The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary. Although individual novels have featured plots about mass murderers and serial killers, they’re always infused with wit and compassion; they’re as much spiritual investigations into the nature of evil and divine mercy as they are “entertainments.” Indeed, Gamache and his trusted colleagues strike me as having more in common with Chaucer’s questing pilgrims than they do earthbound investigators like, say, Michael Connelly’s retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus.
When “A Great Reckoning” opens, Gamache has just stepped into his new post as chief superintendent of the police academy. Gamache accepted the job to find the source of corruption within the academy: Idealistic cadets are being warped into brutish police officers, quick to intimidate and even terrorize the population. In an attempt to reach out to four first-year cadets who seem particularly vulnerable, Gamache gives them each a copy of the riddling map and challenges them to crack its secrets.
Soon, an even more crucial question about the map arises when a copy is found in the bedroom of a professor who’s been murdered at the academy. That professor, Serge Leduc, had been demoted by Gamache when he assumed command. Given their antagonistic relationship and the curious discovery of the map, Gamache becomes something of a “person of interest” in Leduc’s murder.
This is but the skimpiest sliver of the plot of “A Great Reckoning.” As always in the Gamache series, the main narrative branches into more complicated patterns until all questions are resolved in a spectacular climax that cross cuts between story lines. The chief moral question that permeates the many subplots of “A Great Reckoning” is the vexing one of what elders owe to the young under their care. The curious map, which turns out to have connections to World War I, calls to mind the carnage of that war and the young men that so many villages like Three Pines lost. Then there are the cadets at the academy who’ve been led into danger — both moral and physical — by some of their superiors. One cadet, in particular, draws out Gamache’s protective instincts. A sullen goth named Amelia, she’s tricked out with tattoos and body armor. Here’s how one of Gamache’s concerned colleagues regards the cadet: “The rings and studs, like bullets. A girl pierced and pieced together. Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Looking for a heart.”
That tossed-off description of Amelia is a stand-alone poem. In addition to all her other many gifts, Penny is a beautiful writer. “A Great Reckoning” is one of her best, but I think that pretty much every time I finish a Gamache mystery . . . or metaphysical exploration, or whatever the heck these miraculous books are.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Louise Penny
Minotaur. 389 pp. $28.99