This fall a novel made waves when it hit the shelves, seemingly continuing the vein of thriller novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train that have been so popular recently. My friend read and recommended Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast to me, saying she loved it though she did get the impression that there were things in the novel that she should know but she didn’t. I love mysteries, as does my mom, so I passed on the recommendation to her. Her response: “Oh, yes. That’s the newest Inspector Gamache book. It’s a series. I read the first four all together this summer.”
First: Move over, Netflix. Binge reading should be the biggest new-but-really-old thing. Not all series are created equal, but finding a series that is worthy of a good binge read is an absolute joy. (And don’t really move over, Netflix. I love you. We can’t let Hulu win.)
Second: Now my friend and I know why she had that feeling that she didn’t quite have all the details but was expected to. She started with the 11th book in the series. (To be fair, I don’t really remember The Nature of the Beast being marketed as part of a series; rather most of the promotional material I saw was definitely capitalizing on the success of The Girl on the Train.)
So, here is my recommendation. Don’t start with The Nature of the Beast. Do what my mom and now I have done and binge read Louise Penny’s utterly delightful Inspector Gamache series, starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, from the beginning, starting with the first book, Still Life.
I have read the first four so far, and rather than do a review of each one, I thought I’d highlight a few things that I really love about them.
Louise Penny knows how to write a mystery! The books journey from endearing to suspenseful, cozy to creepy, charming to sinister. They are well-crafted mysteries with a logical path that is always just hidden enough to keep you guessing. Plus I always, always have my breath taken away by the twist! I don’t mind that I’m usually wrong because the right answer to whodunnit is always so perfectly crafted and is revealed at an expertly set-up climax. And besides, Inspector Gamache always figures it out just in the nick of time, which is what matters.
Penny is just a beautiful writer period. I disagree with those who separate “genre” fiction from “literary” fiction, and Penny’s Inspector Gamache series is a perfect example why. Yes, they are murder mysteries, but they are sophisticated and beautiful in their style. Penny is particularly masterful at describing a moment of quiet peace in Three Pines, Quebec, her imagery evoking whatever emotion her reader needs to feel in those moments.
Penny has quite a way with creating characters as well. The people and town of Three Pines are everyone’s dream of cozy small town life. Three Pines, not far from the US border, is not found on any map of Quebec, and yet it enchants everyone who wanders through its main square. The people are quirky individuals, but they are so very real, too. Their loves, aches, challenges, and achievements are very rooted in real human experience and emotion, and they make sure to find the ridiculousness and joys of life. We meet everyone from Peter and Clara, utterly devoted yet in competition through their art, and Ruth Zardo, cantankerous world-renowned poet with a soft spot for ducklings, to Olivier and Gabri, running their B&B and changing minds and hearts, and Myrna, who came to Three Pines to escape the rat race and ended up owning a book store. Honestly, there are days when I would love to emulate Myrna. What really makes me love these characters, though, is the familiarity of them. They are a group of friends who never have to wonder what they are doing on a Saturday night because someone is hosting an informal dinner party or happy hour or book club. These villagers are all uniquely individual but as a group, they welcome the reader in as another member of their friend-family. It’s been a pleasure being a part of that group, however briefly.
And finally, Inspector Gamache is a highly compelling character. The moral compass of the series, he is a great man who commands respect, but Penny does not shy away from revealing his imperfections. He knows he makes mistakes and misjudges people, but he always focuses on the human cost of crimes and the innate goodness of people, a quality that is at the root of his success as well as sets him apart from others in the Sûreté. His also balanced by his team: the much more logical Jean-Guy Beauvier and the intuitive Isabel Lacoste, whom he relies on increasingly as a case from his past threatens to resurface and destroy his career and his family in the series’ initial through-line plot.
There are some things I don’t like about the series, particularly Agent Yvette Nichol, who, though she has an ultimately clear purpose, secured her place as one of my least favorite characters in any book of all time. However, one of life’s great pleasures is a well-crafted mystery series, and this well-written, traditional yet exciting series is just that. Go read it now. You won’t be disappointed.