INTRODUCTION BY MARY BETH ROCHE
I was first introduced to Louise Penny with Bury Your Dead– I immediately added Winter Carnival in Quebec to my bucket list and quickly went back to the start of the series to immerse myself in the world of Three Pines— the scenery, the food, the smells, but best of all, the characters with their warmth, brilliance, quirkiness, complications, and deep friendships.
I asked to write this post about A Great Reckoning because I wanted to revisit a world where goodness and integrity can win out even when surrounded by profound evil. As the audio publisher, I was also interested in thinking about the impact of narration. A Great Reckoning was only the second book read by Robert Bathurst.
After beloved long-time series narrator, Ralph Cosham, died in 2014, we had to find a new voice for Chief Inspector Gamache and the wonderful world that Louise had created. Our producer and Louise spent time talking about the qualities of Armand Gamache and what kind of voice was needed to convey his persona and all the other Three Pines favorites.
After listening to lots of samples we found Robert Bathurst, a wonderful English actor of stage and screen known to many American audiences as the character Sir Anthony who left Edith at the altar in Downton Abbey. He has made the transition to Three Pines beautifully. Bathurst has won the Audie Award for best male narrator for his work on this series and been nominated three times. AudioFile gave the audiobook of A Great Reckoning an Earphones Award, lauding Bathurst for putting “his own indelible stamp on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache…. If you haven’t listened to this series, start at once. You’ll love your stay in Three Pines.” I couldn’t agree more.
Before we jump right into the recap, a quick note that spoilers lie ahead. If you haven’t finished reading A Great Reckoning, please consider leaving now and rejoining the conversation after you’ve had a chance to finish the book. Let’s travel to Three Pines and learn what the Gamaches are up to…
Ch. 1-11: As the novel opens, a lingering question from The Nature of the Beast is answered. Armand Gamache has just taken over as commander of the Sûreté Academy, determined to clean up the merde his predecessor had left behind after years of brutality and corruption.
Armand is reviewing the list of accepted applicants for the new class at the academy and is struggling with one in particular, Amanda Choquet. He also goes to visit his former best friend, Michel Brébeuf, the former superintendent of the Sûreté, who had been one of the most powerful officers in the force before his disgrace. In a move that surprises many, Gamache asks him to join the faculty. Michel knows he has been brought back to serve as an object lesson for the cadets about what happens when you give in to temptation. He also knows Gamache well enough to think there is more to it, but he isn’t sure what yet.
We meet the brutal and corrupt Serge Leduc, who had been the most powerful presence in the academy, giving cadets weapons even as he took away their moral compass. Leduc was also responsible for the fractured relationship between the academy and the community. The community and its mayor had originally greeted the academy with delight, helping them to find an appropriate site on the outskirts of town— until the town received notice that the academy would be appropriating land right in the center of the site Leduc knew was reserved for a long-planned recreation center.
Gamache removed much of the existing faculty while retaining Leduc and rehiring Brébeuf – a risky play, but surely Gamache had a plan.
Gamache’s daughter, Annie, is four months’ pregnant with her first child when Armand asks Jean Guy to be his second in command at the academy.
We also meet Amanda Choquet, a tattooed, multi-pierced young woman who applies to the academy as a last resort after a series of depressing dead-end jobs and is stunned when Gamache selects her to join his first class of cadets.
Reine-Marie also has a new job that makes each day feel like Christmas, volunteering to sort years of donations to the regional historical society. But she also offers to help Ruth review a box of documents that Olivier and Gabri found in the wall when they renovated the bistro. Joined each afternoon by Clara and Myrna, they have the modern equivalent of a sewing bee: a reading bee.
In the box Ruth discovers a map of Three Pines so intricately illustrated that “it looked like a work of art had been swallowed by an ordnance map.” Olivier has the map framed and gives it to Gamache as a gift with a card that reads, “So you’ll always find your way home,” signed by Olivier, Gabri, Clara, Myrna, and Ruth.
Early in the term, Gamache and Reine-Marie host a gathering for select faculty and students in his quarters at the academy. Gamache finds Amanda and two seniors (Jacques and Huifen) and another first-year (Nathaniel) studying the map. Gamache gives the four cadets a challenge: work together as a team to discover the mystery of the map.
They discover that all the roads and paths on the map lead to Three Pines, but what interests them is that it’s the only map that the village appears on. It’s also the first and last map to show the little Three Pines community before, as Reine-Marie remarked, it was “banished from memory.”
Chapter 11 ends when a murder victim is discovered on an early morning deep into the first term. Isabelle Lacoste, now head of homicide, is called in to investigate.
Chapters 12-22: The murder victim was Serge Leduc, found with a bullet hole in his temple by the freshman, Nathaniel. But why is a copy of the map found in his bedside table?
Gamache shares that while he was looking for corruption at the Sûreté, he kept finding references to strange dealings at the academy—rumors of bribery, price fixing, and money laundering associated with the awarding of contracts for the building of the new academy building. But even more disturbing than the suggestions of corruption was the brutal behavior of the academy’s most recent graduates. Gamache wants to find out why so many graduates seem steeped in cruelty and to stop it.
Gamache and Lacoste discuss the poisonous atmosphere at the academy, and Gamache explains why he kept Leduc and brought in Brébeuf. Leduc ruled by brutality and promised cadets power and rewards. Gamache believed that he couldn’t just fire Leduc but had to show him and those he had already corrupted that his philosophy would no longer be tolerated. Brébeuf has lost everything—colleagues, friends, career, self-respect, family—and is an object lesson of what happens to corrupt Sûreté officials. He compares his strategy to putting out a fire with another fire—a controlled burn. Lacoste questions how controlled the situation really is.
An independent investigator, Paul Gélinas, is brought in to supervise the investigation into the murder. He is a high-ranking Mountie, an assistant commissioner in the RCMP. And unbeknownst to Lacoste, he was specifically requested by Gamache.
After the body is discovered, Gamache has the four cadets working on the map project brought to Three Pines, but is it for their protection or to protect the academy from one of them? Gamache keeps their location secret from almost everyone, including Gélinas.
Clara adopts a new puppy and Marie Reine brings home the runt of the litter, but it is unclear to everyone if the creature called Gracie is even a puppy.
Gamache invites another new professor, Hugo Charpentier, who teaches tactics to come to Three Pines with him when Hugo shows a lot of interest in the map. He suggests that the map was drawn by a professional and may have been created to help a young WWI soldier find his way home.
The four cadets and Ruth find themselves in the chapel, and Amelia discovers that the map is also represented in the stained-glass window depicting local boys lost in the Great War.
Chapters 23-33: The four cadets have each been assigned a Three Pines host. Myrna suggests that Jacques, whose impression of Gamache was heavily influenced by Leduc, might not really understand what Gamache is about and suggests that Jacques look him up online. Jacques finds the video of the gunfight at the factory where Gamache was so seriously wounded.
Meanwhile Gélinas and Lacoste meet with the mayor to determine if his anger at Leduc’s double cross on the academy site makes him a suspect in Leduc’s murder. Jean Guy talks with Madame Coldbrook at the gun manufacturer and confirms that the revolver that killed Leduc was ordered and owned by Leduc himself. They discuss the gun’s specific design and uses and question why someone who didn’t collect guns would want it. Elizabeth Coldbrook then sends Jean Guy an email confirming the details from their conversation, but he notices something strange about her name at the bottom. It’s signed Elizabeth Coldbrook-Clairton but the Clairton is in a different font. Before he can think more about it, the forensic report arrives in his inbox.
Gélinas is outraged when he realizes he’s the only one of the lead investigators who didn’t know that Gamache had removed the four cadets from the academy to Three Pines. He charges that Gamache is hampering the investigation and makes the case for why Gamache should be a suspect.
Meanwhile the cadets continue to try to learn more about the map. Amelia and Huifen go to the toponymie office and learn that their map was made by Antony Turcotte, a legend in mapmaking. Not much is known about Turcotte personally, but they do learn he’s buried at the site of his one great error, a place called Roof Trusses. He apparently mistook the name of a small business to be the name of the town. The town was later renamed by the villagers themselves, but now even that town has disappeared. Nathaniel and Jacques go to the town hall in St. Remy to find out who owned the bistro when it was converted and the map hidden in its walls.
Gélinas, Lacoste, Gamache and Jean Guy return to Three Pines and get an update from the cadets on their investigation into the map. Ruth overhears their update and tells everyone that she knows where Roof Trusses is – just down the road a few kilometers – but that the name had been changed to Notre-Dame-de-Douleur (Reine-Marie wonders if it is Our Lady of Pain or Grief). Gélinas implies to everyone in the bistro that Gamache is a suspect and brings up the deaths of Gamache’s parents when he was just a child.
Gélinas and Lacoste question Amanda and try to understand why Gamache is so interested in her and why he accepted her into the academy after she had been rejected by Leduc. Jean Guy also wonders who Amelia is to Gamache. Could Gamache have had an affair? Could Amelia be his daughter?
Reine-Marie and Gamache leave the bistro and are drawn to the peace and quiet of the church. Reine-Marie asks what he’s thinking, and Gamache shares his memories of the day his parents were killed. Reine-Marie has just asked Gamache who Amelia is to him when Olivier interrupts to warn them that he doesn’t trust Gélinas and that he’s concerned that Gélinas wants to pin the murder on Gamache.
Chapters 34-43: In these final chapters there are a few more misdirections but the clues start to come together.
Jean Guy is worried that Gélinas is going to arrest Gamache for murder. Gamache’s prints were on the gun, but Gamache said he never touched it. Who would have the forensic ability to plant that evidence? Charpentier?
Amanda and Nathaniel go in search of Roof Trusses, and they find the overgrown cemetery. But puzzlingly, there was no Antony Turcotte, no Turcotte at all.
There’s a movie night at the Gamache home. Most watch Mary Poppins, but Olivier chooses The Deer Hunter, reminded of it by a discussion of the woman’s name from the gun manufacturer. Clairton, the name in the different font, is the name of the town the main character comes from. Gamache joins Olivier, and when Robert DeNiro pulls the trigger of a revolver, he realizes Leduc’s greatest horror. Leduc made the cadets play Russian Roulette.
Brébeuf admits to killing Leduc. He explains that when he found out about the Russian Roulette he was certain Gamache would get rid of Leduc permanently, so he could never torture anyone else. But Brébeuf knew that killing an unarmed man would be the undoing of Gamache, so Brébeuf kills Leduc himself, believing he was doing it to save Gamache. After admitting all this and with Gamache begging him not to, Brébeuf kills himself.
Gélinas is revealed as LeDuc’s accomplice in the fraud.
The cadets ultimately find the grave for Antony Turcotte, who was actually Marie Valois, mother of three young men killed in the Great War. She made each of her sons a map to take with them so they could find their way home and another so they could find their way to her. She lived in Three Pines, renting the building that is now the bistro but moved to live in Roof Trusses when her sons were killed.
And finally, we learn who Amelia really is: the daughter of the young man who drove drunk and killed Gamache’s parents, Honoré and Amelia. The young man who had been given a suspended sentence and went on to live his life and have a daughter whom he named Amelia.
“And we are introduced to goodness every day. Even in drawing rooms among a crowd of faults.”
Several times in the novel Louise weaves in a quote from W. H. Auden, but I particularly like these final two lines, which remind us that goodness is also everywhere. At this particular moment in the world, I appreciated remembering that while, yes, evil is all around us, so too is goodness. And that we need to remember that each of us is a complex mixture of both.
Like all of Louise’s novels, the plotting in A Great Reckoning is richly layered and keeps you guessing until the very end. The characters are complex and often flawed, with a fascinating combination of good and evil. I was particularly struck by the friendships in this story.
I am always drawn to the depth of feeling and understanding the Three Pines neighbors and friends have for one another, accepting their quirks and habits as part of what makes them whole. But the relationship between Brébeuf and Gamache illuminates how complex a friendship can be and how deep affection can still exist even when the relationship seems irredeemable. Louise always leaves me feeling hopeful at the end of her books. And that, with the remembered scent of a wood-smoke fire and cinnamon and sugar wafting out of the bistro kitchen, will have to sustain me until her next book.
- “The worst was coming. But so was the best. The snow angels were coming,” Gamache reflects in the first chapter. Aside from evoking the chill of November, what expectations do these lines raise about the story to come?
- What do you think of Gamache’s decision to invite Brébeuf to teach at the academy? What does the invitation, and Brébeuf’s acceptance of it, say about the two men?
- In what ways is the map significant to Gamache, the villagers, and the various cadets? What significance does it have for you?
- How do you feel about the character of Amelia? Did you see the final words in the book coming, and did they change your view of Gamache or Amelia in any way?
- What are the most important things Gamache teaches the cadets? What does he learn from them?
- How does the relationship between Gamache and Beauvoir evolve throughout the story? Do they generally behave in the ways you’d predict, or do they sometimes surprise you?
- In what ways are the cadets similar to and different from one another? How did Leduc play upon their strengths and weaknesses?
- “The innocent are often upset when the world doesn’t live up to their expectations,” Lacoste says of Amelia. Can you think of examples of this in the outside world?
- Louise quotes from a poem by Jonathan Swift: “Come hither, all ye empty things,/Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings.” What do you think is meant by the “bubbles raised”?
What are the bubbles?
- How do you respond to the scene in the chapel in Chapter 39, when Gamache talks to the cadets about what happened with Leduc?
- How do the emotions of both jealousy and loyalty affect the characters’ actions? In Chapter 41, what is the meaning of the line, “The friendship. The friendship”?
- “Few writers in any genre can match Penny’s ability to combine heartbreak and hope in the same scene,” said Publishers Weekly in a starred review of Bury Your Dead. Did you laugh or cry at any point during A Great Reckoning, and if so, what made you do so?