Five Penny’s for Your Thought: The Best of Armand Gamache
An attempt to select Penny's five best
We hope your week is off to a good start. This week’s essay is from mystery author and critic Jodé Millman. She tackles a problem we would find extremely difficult: which are the five best Gamache novels.
Let us know which books are in your top five.
— Aya and Elizabeth
P.S. Thanks to Deborah for providing the gorgeous painting-like image of Three Pines you see in this post. She created it using Dall-E, an AI art generator. If you have anything Gamache-related to share, please send it our way by responding to this email or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
By Jodé Millman
In Louise Penny’s “Three Pines” series (Minotaur), the murders are as plentiful as the snowflakes clinging to the needles of the namesake pines in the village square. The tiny fictional Canadian hamlet of Three Pines is a cozy place where the neighbors epitomize the word “friendship,” and welcome even the most despicable humans into their bosoms with open arms. Penny’s seventeen novels are not only about the tragedies that befall this community, but the fears, the secrets and the desires buried beneath the endless blanket of snow and ice.
The heart of this series belongs to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. First as a stranger to the village, and later as one of its most trusted residents. Armand is a quiet, thoughtful man, and a pillar of strength whenever Three Pines and its residents are swept up into chaos, or as readers of Penny and Clinton’s “State of Terror” know, when the world is on the verge of nuclear disaster.
To Armand, his close Three Pines friends — Myrna the bookseller/psychologist, Clara the frustrated artist, Ruth the boozy old poet who lugs around a duck as a pet, and Gabri and Olivier the bistro owners — are his extended family. They know they can rely on him to protect them from evil, regardless of the personal or professional cost. His own family-his beloved wife Reine-Marie, his son Daniel and daughter Annie, their spouses, his grandchildren, and his godfather Steven, mean more to him than life itself. They consume his first and last thoughts of the day; and especially when Armand’s life is on the line, he worries he will never see them again.
To his loyal underlings, Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle LaCoste, Armand inspires respect, and even when he’s been professionally disgraced, they still refer to him as Patrón. His team understands Armand is a strategist, a planner, and someone they gladly will follow into battle, knowing he will accept the consequences for breaking the rules to serve justice.
But Armand Gamache is not a superman. He possesses flaws. He’s too loyal, too loving, and too trusting in humankind. The livid scar running down his face is a metaphor for the personal wounds he has buried deep inside. He would rather internalize the baggage of his childhood trauma, his insecurities about past decisions or his inability to solve a crime, than worry the people under his care. But above all, he is just. Armand does not rush to judgment. He allows the evidence to reveal slowly itself like the Canadian springtime before he lowers the hammer on the villains.
I found it extremely difficult to select five novels which represent the “best of” Gamache, because each “Three Pines” entry is a five-star winner in the mystery game. Louise Penny writes from the heart and never shies away from inserting Armand into contemporary political or socially sensitive issues like genocide, incest, the opioid crisis, French-Canadian separatism, or the pandemic; not to mention the customary crime fiction tropes of revenge, greed, or malice.
The five novels below are testaments to the truly entertaining, enlightening and thrilling partnership between Penny and Gamache. In my book, they are “the best of the best.”
Still Life (Book # 1)
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, homicide investigator for the Sûreté du Quebéc is dispatched, along with his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir to investigate the murder of Jane Neal in the mountains outside of Quebéc. Ms. Neal is a retired schoolteacher and an amateur painter whose primitive and autobiographical work, Fair Day, has been recently accepted into a prestigious local exhibit.
In his mid-fifties, Gamache is at the pinnacle of his stalled career. He is kind and sympathetic and is always shocked by violent death. He’s also a bit of rogue, often allowing his conscience and dedication to finding the truth to overrule his compliance with police procedure.
His team travels to the rural crime scene, which is in the woods outside of Three Pines, an idyllic village that does not even appear on GPS or any map. It is a cozy community, where the bistro, bookstore, bed-and-breakfast, and village green compose the beating heart of the town, and everyone knows everyone else.
At first, Jane’s death by a bowman’s arrow is believed to be a hunting accident, but the shocking tragedy has raised suspicions, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative. Questions of artistic jealousy, proficiency with a bow and arrow, Jane’s confrontational personality, the value of Jane’s art and inheritance send Gamache’s team scouring Three Pines for clues. The killer could be anyone in Three Pines, from the local archery club operator Matthew Croft to the unknown local artist Clara Morrow, the boozy, well-known mad poet Ruth Zardo or Jane’s next of kin, Yolande.
Being the first in the Three Pines series, “Still Life” invests a great deal of time introducing the reader to the colorful residents, and suspects, of Three Pines, and examines how the murder has dislodged the community. “Still Life” is a snapshot of the Gamache stories to come, and clearly, Three Pines makes as big an impression on Gamache as he does on the rest of us.
Bury Your Dead (Book #6)
Did Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make a fatal error? Impossible, but perhaps.
After a Three Pines case detailed in The Brutal Telling (Book #5) goes terribly wrong, Armand Gamache believes the wrong man, Bistro owner Olivier, has been found guilty of murder. To heal his wounds, Armand takes a sabbatical from police work, and flees to snowy Quebéc City. Seeking respite there during the annual Winter Carnival, Armand distracts himself by researching the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The battle was a turning point in Canadian history, resulting in the country’s subjection to British rule after their bold defeat of French General Montcalm.
Referred to the Literary and Historical Society library by his librarian wife Reine-Marie, Armand is tapped to investigate the murder of Augustin Renaud, when Renaud’s body is discovered in the library’s basement. Renaud was a Champlain scholar obsessed with uncovering the actual burial location of French colonist and Quebéc’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. Champlain’s body was temporarily buried in the Notre-Dame-de-la-Recouvrance church, while an adjacent chapel was being constructed as his final resting place. However, after the church and all burial records were destroyed by fire, Champlain’s remains were never found, making it an unsolved mystery.
Having left Beauvoir in Three Pines to further investigate The Brutal Telling (Book #5) murder of an old hermit, Gamache enlists his old mentor, Emil Comeau, to assist in the overwhelming task of solving Renaud’s murder. Had Renaud been closing in on the truth about Champlain’s burial, or were there greater international implications to disclosing the location? Did the British silence Renaud, or was it someone affiliated with the library? Armand and Emil must scour Renaud’s diary and research, and historical records to uncover the killer.
Intermingled with the parallel investigations in Three Pines and Quebéc, Penny sprinkles in flashbacks of another incident plaguing Gamache. The scene is an abandoned factory, where Gamache and his team are preparing to infiltrate. Did Gamache make another deadly mistake by risking the lives of his team and his own life?
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A Great Reckoning (Book #12)
After decades of investigating homicides, Armand Gamache has retired. Sort of. He has exchanged the world of police procedure for the world of the ivory tower and training police recruits as the new commander of the Sûreté Academy of Quebéc. But was Armand’s retirement by choice, or was he forced out?
Over the years, he has witnessed an evil infiltrating the police force, and he views his new position as an opportunity to stop the corruption and return morality to the impressionable cadets. However, uncovering the brutal virus and cleansing the menace from the academy is much more difficult than he expects. Venerable professor Serge “The Duke” LeDuc has the reputation of blatantly abusing his student by forcing them to play Russian Roulette, and possessing a suffocating grip on the academy. To extract the academy from LeDuc’s influence, Armand demotes him, and when LeDuc is found dead, Armand becomes a prime suspect in the murder, and must prove his innocence.
What is even more troubling for Armand is the discovery of a copy of an intricate map of Three Pines at the crime scene. The hundred-year-old map is the only one in existence of Three Pines, and it was a gift from his friends. He had assigned uncovering the map’s mystery to his four new recruits, and they were the only people in possession of copies. So how did LeDuc get the map and why?
One of Armand’s handpicked cadets is a tattooed former substance abuser and prostitute, Amelia Choquet. Her name rings a bell, but Armand can’t quite place her. Despite Amelia’s jaded past, Armand sees promise in her, a spunk that would allow her to blend into situations where other, straighter officers would stand out. Naturally, she’s a renegade, and the close, familial relationship she develops with Armand raises a mystery as to her parentage and Armand’s past.
All the Devils are Here (Book 16)
In Louise Penny’s sixteenth novel, “All the Devils Are Here,” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is in dire need of a vacation to Paris. It will be a chance to reconnect with his ex-pat children, revisit his childhood haunts, and celebrate the arrival of his newest granddaughter. However, dedicated readers know that murder and intrigue are as inseparable from Armand’s life as the Eiffel Tower is from Paris.
On the night of their arrival, Armand and his wife, Reine-Marie, are strolling home after a family reunion at a bistro when Armand’s godfather, Stephen Horowitz, is struck down by a van. The entire Gamache family, including their children and spouses, are witnesses to the terrifying hit-and-run, which leaves Horowitz comatose. Immediately, questions arise about whether it was an accident or a plot against the elderly man’s life.
A strange key found among Horowitz’s possessions unlocks the mystery of the billionaire-corporate raider-Resistance hero’s past, a corporate cover-up and, of course, a gruesome murder. When the police thwart the investigation, the Gamaches step in and quickly discover that old friends, colleagues and even family are not who they appear to be. Armand must rely on his instincts to determine whether his old friend, Claude Dussault, the Prefect of Police in Paris, is corrupt and whether his son, Daniel, is a traitor to Stephen’s agenda.
While aficionados of Louise Penny may balk at the change of scenery to Paris, both Penny and Armand have earned a well-deserved holiday. However, we’ve all experienced trips that were a bust, but hopefully none as perilous as the Gamache’s. In “The Devils are Here,” this deadly and intriguing vacation grabs the reader and doesn’t let go until the last line. I’m confident that Armand would agree that while it’s exciting to travel, there’s still no place like home. Especially Three Pines.
The Madness of Crowds (Book 17)
Is it too soon to read a novel inspired by the pandemic experience? In Louise Penny’s latest novel, “The Madness of Crowds,” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and the residents of his cozy village of Three Pines, view the pandemic as a horrible, haunting memory. Happily, the vaccine has arrived. Family and friends have joined to celebrate Christmas and everyone is now safe. Or are they?
As readers expect, another is storm brewing. Controversial statistician, Abigail Robinson, is coming to lecture at a nearby university, and Gamache has been assigned to supervise the gathering. The event should be a non-starter, but Professor Robinson is preaching the unthinkable in the pandemic's wake-something akin to mass murder. In a land gripped by post-pandemic fear and frustration, one faction of the masses is enthusiastically embracing Robinson’s agenda. It is even gaining traction with national politicians. Others adamantly oppose Robinson’s idea, which polarizes the crowd, setting up a potential disaster at the event.
Gamache pleads with the university to cancel the lecture, but they refuse to censor Professor Robinson, and during the rally, a gunman makes an attempt on her life. While Gamache despises the professor’s message, it is his duty to save her life, and so he does. However, Robinson’s subsequent attendance at a local New Year's Eve party leads to the murder of her assistant, Debbie Schneider. Was Debbie the actual target, or was it a case of mistaken identity? Was someone attempting to stop Robinson from spreading her poison?
Haniya Daoud, “The Hero of Sudan,” and a potential Nobel Prize winner for her humanitarianism, is also visiting Three Pines. During her brief life, she has suffered capture and torture, and has been forced to do whatever was necessary to remain alive. Even murder. Daoud has garnered her hatred for her torturers and transformed it into a mission to save other at-risk women and children around the world. She, too, despises Robinson’s theories, but is that enough for her to kill Robinson?
The plot thickens as the reader discovers that Debbie’s murder is only the tip of the iceberg. Slowly, Penny reveals that the present is built upon the fragile fabric of past lies, secrets and crimes. Through the various characters, Penny cleverly weaves acts of murder on a global, national and individual scale into Gamache’s investigation of Debbie’s murder.
This quintet of “Three Pines” novels reflects the circle of Armand’s career from Chief Inspector to Commander of the Academy to retiree to Chief Inspector. Also, they reflect his journey from father to grandfather, and from stranger to friend. Although his career has been limited to Quebéc and its environs, Armand is a fully formed three-dimensional character who merges his work and personal lives to make him a better man, a better homicide investigator. One who has seen the worst and the best. Often in the same person.
So, what’s in your top five?
Jodé Millman is the acclaimed author of HOOKER AVENUE and THE MIDNIGHT CALL, which won the Independent Press, American Fiction, Independent Publisher, and the Bronze IPPY Awards for Legal Thriller. She’s an attorney, a reviewer for Booktrib.com, the host/producer of The Backstage with the Bardavon podcast, and creator of The Writer’s Law. Jodé lives with her family in the Hudson Valley, where she is at work on the next installment of her “Queen City Crimes” series due out in Spring 2023—novels inspired by true crimes in the region she calls home. Discover more about Jodé, her work, and sign up for her newsletter at www.jodemillman.com.
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I think these are all strong picks, but I'd have to add The Beautiful Mystery (of course the problem is I'm not sure what i'd take out.) Penny is just doing so much in The Beautiful Mystery — exploring faith, brotherhood, betrayal, found families — while making it look easy.
great summaries of the books, but I can't choose 5 favorites. They all call on different emotions and as a reader it is like taking a journey with friends each time I reread the series.