Written by Louise Penny — It’s billed as a Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, but these days Armande Gamache has left the Surete du Quebec behind and retired to the peaceful community of Three Pines, north of the Vermont border in the Eastern Townships, with long-suffering wife Reine-Marie.
They’re trying to tempt him back and there are a couple of job offers on the table for his consideration, but Armand is enjoying the ebb and flow of early retirement. At last he feels as if he has found peace in a place that few have even heard of and even fewer can find on a map.
He’s been accepted into the local community, which, like all small villages, has its share of eccentrics and oddities, not least the foul mouthed poet Ruth and her constant companion, a pet duck called Rose. Nine-year-old Laurent Lacoste is another minor irritant, a little boy with a huge imagination who is far too fond of telling tall tales. So when he rushes into the village bistro – the hub of the community – telling all and sundry about the huge gun, as big as a house, with monsters on it, that he has just uncovered deep in the woods, no one takes a blind bit of notice.
But next day, Laurent is found dead, the victim of what initially appears to be a simple cycling mishap. He fell off his bike and bumped his head, according to the initial accident report, but Gamache smells a rat. When his instincts are proved right, the case transforms into a murder investigation. And there’s an anomaly: the boy went nowhere without his favourite stick, carved lovingly by his father and used by the imaginative child as everything from a rifle to a magic wand. Where is it? The villagers initiate a widespread search of the forest surrounding Three Pines, which at first appears fruitless. Then the stick is found at the spot where Laurent was killed. And so is a huge gun, big as a house, with monsters on it…
Thus begins a cracking good tale, littered with spies, arms dealers, a dodgy play, a murder hunt and a former adversary who comes back to haunt Gamache. It’s all classic Penny and a story that is destined to keep you on your toes throughout.
The Nature of the Beast is the 11th Inspector Gamache novel, many of which have been set in Three Pines – which must be the Canadian equivalent of Midsomer, so many deaths happen there. The great thing about an author using the same setting many times is that as a reader you can almost become part of the community, meeting up with familiar faces and having fun reacquainting yourself with a familiar area.
On the downside, there’s always the danger that new faces are immediately marked as victims or killers (think the original Star Trek television series and you’ll know what I mean). Luckily, the author is savvy enough to bypass this by skilfully introducing a whole rabble of newcomers who are soon integrated into the tale as if they’ve been there for years.
It’s quite a feat to give an almost cosy feel to a novel that features the murder of a child, a weapon of mass destruction and some decidedly dangerous characters, but that’s the thing about a Louise Penny book – it’s like stepping into a welcoming bubble bath, clutching a well-earned glass of wine… only to find a shark lurking near the plughole. Never let your guard down, that’s my advice.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars