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One Good Thing: These dark detective novels are really about ethics and hope

Can fiction about police be healing in 2021? Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books make a very good case.

The Abbaye du Saint Benoit du Lac in Quebec, one of the inspirations for the settings in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series.
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Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

I discovered Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series of novels (also known as the Three Pines series) the way a proper detective might: by ransacking Goodreads lists and analyzing the ratings of all the cozy mysteries I could find, to see if any of those quirkily wholesome stories of small-town murder ranked higher than Agatha Christie.

I reasoned that if Goodreads users could agree on the merit of any mystery writer, it would be Christie. (The site is notorious for its vicious and finicky readers who downvote books for the pettiest of reasons.) Therefore any title in the genre that had lots of Goodreads entries and a reader rating that was as high or higher than that of, say, And Then There Were None would be worth digging into.

Turns out, Penny’s series is not only a Goodreads hit, but has proven so popular she’s churned out a total of 16 volumes since publishing the first, Still Life, in 2005; the 17th, The Madness of Crowds, will come out in August. The books have also won an absolute mountain of awards — including the Agatha Award, presented to literary cozies — seven times.

Conceptually, Inspector Gamache sounds like the last kind of story to go head to head with anything by the grand dame of murder. To start, it’s Canadian, and we all know the darkest crime a Canadian ever committed was creating Tim Hortons. (I kid!)

The books are also difficult to easily categorize. They balance many of the most comforting elements of cozy mysteries with many of the bleakest and most haunting elements of gritty modern noir or criminal procedurals. Yet even when they’re dealing with modern issues like PTSD, drug addiction, systemic racism, and police corruption, they’re all undercut with a highbrow literary bent and a thoroughly humanitarian, nigh-spiritual worldview. Hardly the stuff of the average mystery novel.

People love them. And now, having spent the last month blazing through the first nine books, I see why.

Louise Penny has perfected the literary genre hybrid

The Inspector Gamache series takes place in an idyllic small town in Canada called Three Pines. The quirky circle of artists and brigands who reside there frequently compare Three Pines to Brigadoon because it’s not on any map and seems to appear out of the mist only to wandering souls in need of its comforting sense of community. How they feel about its astronomical death rate is another matter.

One of the souls who seems to need Three Pines most is our hero, Inspector Gamache, a gentle Quebecois police inspector battling internal corruption. As chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, Gamache culls deep devotion from his officers as well as other beat cops who know him only by reputation. Thanks to the ongoing fallout of a complex scandal involving police brutality against a poor Indigenous community, however, most of his superiors on the force hate him.

Every book in the series thus runs on two parallel tracks: the slow train of Gamache’s meandering route through solving the particulars of that book’s specific murder case, and the bullet train of navigating the intricate political intrigues of his own police department.

This structure allows Penny to layer two different mystery genres — the traditional cozy and the crime thriller — atop one another. The concept of the cozy mystery forms something of a paradox: stories about murder, death, and despair wrapped in a comforting bubble of familiarity, community, warm-hearted main characters, and often a sense of high-spirited fun. If the genre itself forms a paradox, then the Inspector Gamache books form one more. They’re a Schroedinger’s box of yes, they’re definitely cozies and no, they’re definitely not, with a lot of okay, fine, they are, but they’re also so much more.

I find that Inspector Gamache books frequently wriggle away from association with the cozy genre — though I have to note my favorite book in the series so far, A Trick of the Light (book six) is also the coziest of the lot. Overall, though, I agree with the Washington Post’s assessment that they form a wonderful literary hybrid, with an emphasis on literary.

That’s because in addition to observing most of the conventions of the cozy genre, the books are also twisty, multilayered, and sweeping, with story arcs stretching across volumes and involving dozens of characters. Each novel is only partly fixated on crime and equally fixated on various cultural and historical themes, from Canadian revolutionary exploits to Quebecois culture clashes to art and music history.

The books also feel somewhat documentarian, often borrowing real events and settings. Each novel features multiple places reportedly based on real-life locations around rural Quebec. Interwoven through the entire series are recurring snatches of actual real poems, most written by Margaret Atwood, but presented in the story as coming from the mind of one illustrious fictional poet. One line, reportedly written by the self-published poet Marylyn Plessner, serves as an idée fixe for the entire series and its commitment to showing grace to the wounded: “Who hurt you once, so far beyond repair, that you would greet each overture with curling lip?”

These details keep the books rooted in the real — an achievement, given that they’re also playing with tropes and settings that have a deliberately mystical vibe and often verge into the wildly over-the-top. Everything about Three Pines ticks the Quaint Small Town bingo card: There’s the cute B&B and bistro run by the equally cute gay couple who, like their neighbor the quirky bookshop owner, stumbled upon the town one day by accident and never left. They’re joined by the resident town drunk, an aging, foul-mouthed troll who hates everyone, secretly yearns for love, and ... was also the poet laureate of Canada. That’s Ruth Zardo, one of the most vivid characters I’ve ever read and absolutely one of the best reasons to devour every book in this series.

At the center of this motley crew we have Clara, a perpetually harried struggling artist whose biggest roadblock to professional success may be her own jealous and resentful husband. Watching her figure this out over the course of the series as she gradually comes into her own may be one of the other best reasons to check out the series.

On Inspector Gamache’s own team, far removed from Three Pines and embroiled in the political drama of the Sûreté, we have mostly doggedly loyal officers, comforting and faithful — except for one. The insubordinate agent, Yvette Nicole, is almost impossible to take seriously as a character because her narcissism, overconfidence, and non-neurotypical social processing give her such an intense personality. But Penny has the great gift of empathizing with all her characters, and that makes Nicole in particular irresistible. She’s an obnoxious, completely unpredictable weapon in Gamache’s arsenal, and yet another reason to seek out the series.

At their core, these books are about hope and community

You may have noticed I’ve said very little about murder, and that’s because there’s so much more going on in this series than murder. I’ve found the actual book-by-book murder plots and their resolutions to be very hit-or-miss — but even when Penny’s episodic tales are a bit unwieldy, her ongoing narrative, and the twists and sheer drama she culls from it, are truly operatic in scale and achievement. The books so far divide into two separate but linked narrative arcs — books 1 to 3 and books 4 to 9 — and that’s a lot of reading, a lot of plot to keep straight, and a huge amount of build-up to a climax. But in both arcs, the climaxes are deliciously dramatic, with giant consequences, huge plot twists, and some absolutely brilliant, deeply satisfying sleights of hand.

(Also of note: So far, I have experienced this series via its fantastic audiobooks, the first 10 of which are narrated with exquisite craft and care by the late Ralph Cosham. Cosham’s precise Quebecois pronunciation is a gift, and he inhabits the titular Inspector Gamache and many of the series’ other characters so fully he all but becomes them. If you want to binge the series, I can’t recommend the audio production enough.)

That’s not to say the series isn’t without flaws. Over 17 volumes, there’s a lot of repetition for newcomers and the reader who’s forgotten what happened in the last book, so if you binge them, you may get tired of hearing some details over and over. One ongoing plot involving a character’s painkiller addiction nearly stretches all credulity and resolves with total absurdity. And there’s a refrain of unconscious but omnipresent fat-shaming for many, many characters, particularly the series’ only Black character, Myrna the bookstore owner, who’s perpetually characterized through her fatness.

Yet there’s a reason these books have won such critical acclaim. Even with some obvious flaws, Penny’s writing excels in its depth of characterization, scope of plotting, and commitment to serializing story arcs over the course of multiple books, and above all the heart at the center of each book.

We might say that heart is Inspector Gamache himself. In a moment when defunding and abolishing the police are central to every discussion of how to fix a broken justice system here in America, the last thing I expected when I read the first volume was to become obsessed with a series about a Canadian cop. But Penny, through Gamache, perpetually asks how policing can be both ethical and kind, and how a broken and corrupt justice system might be rebuilt around these principles. Gamache may be an unrealistically idealized version of a police officer — he doesn’t even carry a weapon during the daily course of his job — but he is a welcome one. Genteel and literate, Gamache uses a form of soft power as his primary offense. He’s dedicated to listening and learning, gaining the trust of fellow officers and suspects, rather than leading through shows of force or bullying his way toward a predetermined outcome.

The image of a cop who constantly keeps himself and his considerable power in check, in favor of doing community outreach and bonding with suspects, feels almost unfairly flattering as a portrait of policing in 2021. But if Gamache is ethical and kind, the Sûreté itself is not, and Penny always reminds us the system itself is broken.

Broken, but not irredeemable. In Penny’s universe, almost no one is beyond redemption or past hope of forgiveness, especially if they’re part of a community that’s chosen love and forgiveness as its guiding principle. That idea, too, feels like a rare luxury in a culture where our sins are increasingly preserved for all time and added to an ever-growing tally of reasons for others to judge us (or cancel us) at will.

It’s also why, when a writer like Penny comes along, you might find yourself clinging to them — perhaps as a reminder that you yourself are not beyond hope.

You can find the Inspector Gamache books, beginning with Still Life, at your local library or wherever books are sold. To listen to the audiobooks, check out Audible, Amazon, or your favorite audiobook merchant.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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