LOUISE PENNY’S

Series Re-Read: The Nature of the Beast

INTRODUCTION BY LAURA COK

I started reading Louise Penny in 2017, before Kingdom of the Blind came out, on the advice of my mother. It’s a true sign of adulthood that I finally accept book recommendations from her. I was immediately obsessed and realized I would need to ration them, lest I run through the entire series too quickly, and limited myself to one a month, in order. 

What I love about them are the same things that everyone loves: the sumptuous food descriptions, the cast of characters, the sense that Three Pines is a real place that, if I were lucky, I could stroll right into. Pull up a seat at the bistro and sip my chocolat chaud. As an Ontarian, the French Quebec countryside is simultaneously familiar and strange; I love recognizing those aspects that are singularly Canadian, but my lack of equal access to decent croissants means the settings still have that foreign frisson. 

And of course, Armand Gamache, the preternaturally patient and wise detective, who loves his wife so much there’s never even a hint of impropriety in a single book. In a world where we cannot necessarily trust that the authorities have our best interests in mind, at least there is Gamache, a man carrying humanity’s weight, whom we can always trust to do the right thing. 

As a writer, I have a soft spot for Ruth, though I find her habit of quoting her own poetry a bit discomfiting. She takes a pivotal role in The Nature of the Beast, and we get a glimpse of the younger woman she once was – before she was hurt so far beyond repair. Her slow, crotchety redemption arc is one of the pleasures of the series and of this book in particular.  

Despite its improbably high murder rate, Three Pines remains the safest place to visit, the coziest company, and the most beautiful little village you can find between two pages. 

RECAP

Laurent Lepage finds something in the woods. As the reader, we don’t know at first whether this is a real danger; the only real clue is that he says, out loud, “bang bang bang.” Once he reenters Three Pines, we learn that he’s well-known as a nine-year-old teller of tall tales, so nobody takes his story of an enormous gun with a monster on it seriously. They should. 

It’s nearly fall, so everyone’s in high spirits and we’re treated to some excellent harvesty bistro scenes while we set the stage. Isabelle Lacoste is now the acting Head of Homicide, as Gamache is in early retirement (theoretically, anyway) and being scouted for Superintendent. Clara Morrow is grieving the recent loss of her husband, Peter, by failing to paint him. He is still the worst, even in death. 

Meanwhile, the town is putting on a play! Directed by Antoinette Lemaitre with the help of her partner, Brian Fitzpatrick, it’s called She Sat Down and Wept. There’s a hastily-ended bit of intrigue around the play’s author, quickly revealed as an unknown, John Fleming. Or is he so unknown? Certainly not by Gamache.

We move from the bistro to the Gamaches’ cozy dinner party. I would accept an invitation any day of the week. Here we’re introduced to Laurent’s parents, Al and Evelyn Lepage: the former is an aging hippie; the latter is twenty years his junior and on the gullible side. Things take a turn for the foreboding: Ruth knows something is deeply wrong, and Gamache feels a chill not solved by the crackling fireplace. Everyone hates John Fleming, but we don’t know why yet. 

The dinner party debates the difference between art and artist, something very relevant in today’s cultural climate. Does an author’s misdeeds outweigh their artistic output? What if the art has nothing to do with their personal behaviour? Gamache takes a strong moral stance here, with unusually little room for discussion, and believes that there can be no separation between art and the person who made it. We learn that he was part of a closed-door trial, during which he learned facts about Fleming considered too horrific for the general public. He was there as a representative, on behalf of humanity. 

Then the worst happens: Laurent is found by his parents in a ditch, where he’s apparently been thrown off his bicycle. It is as horrible an experience for all involved as you can imagine. Gamache and Jean-Guy are putting their heads together – unofficially, since Gamache is no longer with the Sûreté – and both men miss their rapport, even though they’re related now. 

The villagers point out something Gamache missed – Laurent’s stick, carved by his father Al, wasn’t found with his body. Since he went nowhere without his stick, this lends credence to Gamache’s theory (which nobody really bought before now) that Laurent was murdered, rather than killed in an accident. 

Since everyone’s out looking for the stick, it’s only a matter of time before they find the monster. And find it they do, deep in the forest behind camouflage netting: an enormous gun, so huge they can’t see the top of it. And Laurent’s stick. Everyone feels terrible that Laurent wasn’t, for once, lying about what he’d seen. There actually was a giant gun with a monster on it hidden in the forest, and now they need to work out what that means – and why Laurent was killed for it. 

 Meanwhile, Ruth and Clément Béliveau, the grocer (who normally doesn’t get much air time in the series) are putting their heads together. As some of the oldest folks in the village, it’s clear they remember something, or know something, that they’re not sharing just yet. 

We realize that whoever killed Laurent must have known he was telling the truth about the gun, and he was killed to keep him silent. Time for reinforcements: Jean-Guy calls one Professor Rosenblatt. When Rosenblatt arrives, he seems tense. A little cagey. Another one who definitely knows more than he’s saying, but he does know what the gun is, which puts him one up on the rest of our cast so far. As they all stand in the forest staring at the fearsome beast, there’s a nice moment where Jean-Guy and Gamache compensate for each other’s fears – Gamache’s of heights, and Jean-Guy’s of enclosed spaces. As more of a Jean-Guy myself, I can appreciate Gamache’s sacrifice in climbing into the control room of the gun/missile launcher. Once inside, they can appreciate how elegant – in a deadly sense – it is, and they also learn that the trigger mechanism is missing, so it cannot be fired. A big relief for the Americans, at whom the gun is presently aimed. 

There’s a Hebrew quotation along with the monster etched into the side, which Rosenblatt helpfully translates for us: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” Hey, that’s the name of the Fleming play. Coincidence? Gamache has never met one.

Rosenblatt fills us in on some supergun background. It’s called Project Babylon, and was the brainchild of one Dr. Gerald Bull, who was assassinated in Brussels years ago. Lots of biblical imagery to go with the name: the “monster” on the side is the Whore of Babylon, ushering in Armageddon. The trouble with this supergun is that it’s essentially mechanical and can be fired without a power source. This means that any little terrorist cell holed up in a cave could, if they got hold of the gun or the plans, wipe out a large city or a small nation. They do not know where the plans are.

Enter CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. We’ve got two bantering file clerks on the scene, evidently brought in due to their slightly-expired expertise on the supergun. They don’t fit into Three Pines particularly well. Meanwhile, Gamache realizes that he must do what he’s been putting off, and sits down to read the play. Most unfortunately, it’s great.

Rosenblatt and our new agents take a more or less immediate dislike to each other. It’s clear that CSIS knows all about Gerald Bull, and also that Rosenblatt has his hands a little dirtier than he implied, in that he helped design the Avro Arrow, a real-life supersonic fighter jet canceled, to great political controversy, in 1959. He’s not so far away from advanced weapons of war. 

Meanwhile Reine-Marie has a chance to play an active role, taking advantage of her still-active library credentials in gathering a host of materials on everything related to Gerald Bull. One alarming, non-redacted mention of “superguns,” plural, sets everyone on high alert. Some key remaining questions at this point are less about who built the gun, and more about why here, and for whom? Did Bull have the brainpower to design something like this, or was there a secret partner behind the scenes, letting Bull do the sales pitching? And where are the design plans?

But there’s still a murdered little boy to worry about. Al Lepage, Laurent’s father, is an obvious suspect, and Ruth and Clément are still acting squirrely, though they grant mostly-forthcoming interviews to the police. Clara, who up till this point in the narrative has been failing to paint and hosting excellent dinner parties, goes to visit the Lepages, given that she’s one of the few characters who can identify, even slightly, with their current grief. She notes some drawings of sheep in Laurent’s room. The Lepages’ next visitors are somewhat less polite, in that they are the police, conducting another ransacking of the house. In their suspicions of Al, new facts come to light, namely that he was a draft dodger from the time of the Vietnam War. Nobody is too upset about draft dodgers in these parts, then or now. 

Just as we’re in the middle of a tense knot of tangled threads, another murder yanks them even tighter. Antoinette, the play’s director, has been found dead in the middle of what appears to have been a home invasion – but a very methodical one. It appears the killer was looking for something extremely particular. Perhaps some plans for a weapon of mass destruction. 

Our intrepid CSIS agents are beginning to show cracks in their folksy exterior. They’ve been conducting some investigations of their own in the neighbouring countryside, in a town called Highwater.

A new revelation comes out in the case of Antoinette’s uncle, Guillame Couture, who left her the house and was allegedly an engineer making highway overpasses (not necessarily a crime-free endeavour, as we learned in How the Light Gets In), but in fact worked closely with Dr. Bull. We’ve got a smoking gun pointed right at a silent partner, which Rosenblatt confirms. It would certainly have been helpful if he’d chosen to share that information earlier on – Gamache even thinks a murder could have been prevented. But perhaps that was not in Rosenblatt’s interests. 

Our CSIS friends, not friends to any, are particularly cruel to Gamache, and Mary Fraser goes so far as to imply (by outright stating) that his interest in solving Laurent’s murder comes from inappropriate sources. Gamache, usually immune to slights against his character, almost reacts. Gamache’s retired state in this book sets a lot of characters ill at ease – Jean-Guy from not knowing to which fancy job he’ll lose his father-in-law and mentor, other officers from not fully knowing to whom they report – but none so much as Mary Fraser. She seems to think he has betrayed both his country and himself by retiring to the idyllic village, and discounts him as a coward. 

Everyone starts visiting each other so much, you’d think they were in an Austen novel. Brian visits Gamache and borrows his sweater. Clara and Myrna visit Rosenblatt on a park bench. Gamache and Brian, on Gamache’s way to Highwater, take a pit stop at the theater at which Fleming’s play was (is still?) to be produced, and Gamache notices that there seem to be a few more props than there were before. Almost as though Antoinette had moved things from her house to the theatre. Almost as though she were concerned about hiding something. That something is probably not a Maneken Pis tchotchke, though it gives Gamache a moment to reminisce about taking his grandchildren there. As someone who visited that statue at nine years old, I can confirm it is a great hit with children. But wait – the Maneken Pis is in Brussels, and where have we heard that city before? 

While the officers go over the theatre with a fine-tooth comb, finding not much but some photos, pens, and a bookend, Gamache visits Highwater. There he discovers a narrow-gauge railroad and sheared-off industrial remnants that can be nothing else but another supergun. The first supergun.

As usual, most of our new characters for this book are hiding something, and Al Lepage is no exception. As the primary suspect in his son’s murder, Isabel and team are looking into him closely, and have reached out to the US to see about his draft-dodger status. But it turns out he wasn’t a draft dodger after all: he was a war criminal who deserted in order to evade justice for his part in a massacre of civilians, including children, in the Vietnam War. No punches are pulled here; Al is not someone who got caught up in something he wished to prevent. He describes his murder of a nine-year-old girl in cold blood. Jean-Guy retches off-screen. Seems something is up with him.

Meanwhile, Clara, noticing an artistic similarity between the etching on the supergun (shown to her earlier by Rosenblatt) and the lambs in Laurent’s room, at first accuses Evie of being the artist, but quickly realizes it was Al. Things are not looking good for Al, and he’s arrested. At this point, Ruth and Clément give up their caginess, and tell Gamache that yes, they do remember the time the gun was being built. They believed it to be an Anglo’s rich house out in the forest, but more importantly, they remember Gerald Bull swanning about the place, and his very disturbing “project manager.” We’ve seen a half-photo of him before, and finally it all clicks into place much like the firing mechanism Rosenblatt managed to fit together out of the pens and bookend taken from Antoinette’s theatre: he’s none other than John Fleming.

Gamache does not, to his credit, tell anyone “I told you so,” even though he did of course tell them so. Fleming has thoroughly disturbed both Clement and Ruth, even all those years later; it’s difficult to tell exactly what he did to Ruth (did he attack her, or did he merely stand on her porch so menacingly that she would do almost anything to get him off of it?), but she sent him to Al for his artistic work, the etching on the supergun, and has never forgiven herself for it. I think she should cut herself some slack, this is hardly the biggest problem in Al’s life, but that’s of course not in Ruth’s nature. The two of them also helped Al over the border all those years ago, even knowing his crimes. All of this comes to light in front of Evie, who has been having a really bad time of it. First her son is murdered and now her husband turns out to be a virtual stranger and war criminal to boot. 

Gamache and Jean-Guy have a little crying session in Gamache’s house, after which both feel better. There’s nothing left but for them to visit Fleming in the Special Handling Unit. Fleming is, unsurprisingly, extremely gross to visit. He winkles out Gamache’s weak points even more easily than Mary Fraser did, but Gamache does come out of it with one useful piece of information, namely that Fleming was the one who killed Bull. What Fleming isn’t saying is where the plans ended up. He says that Gamache should already know. Gamache definitely does not know. He thinks he should let Fleming out of jail temporarily to lead them to the plans. Everyone else thinks this is a very stupid idea, as Fleming would almost definitely escape. Gamache finally tells Jean-Guy some of the secret backstory regarding John Fleming, which is that he arranged his seven-plus victims into the Whore of Babylon. I don’t know exactly what this means, and Gamache doesn’t spell it out, but it’s clear that grotesque body mutilation is involved. Jean-Guy thinks this is the right moment to tell Gamache that Annie, his wife and Gamache’s daughter, is pregnant. 

Word of the supergun has leaked to the media. The second those reports run, every scary criminal on the planet is going to be descending on Three Pines looking for the plans. Gamache feels he has no choice: they need Fleming. He sends Adam Cohen, a young officer formerly of the SHU, up to the prison so that he can be in place if need be. Meanwhile the townspeople stage a reading of the play, trying to figure out where the hidden messages lie. There’s a bit of a scavenger hunt – first the bistro (which was previously a hardware store), then Clement’s grocery, until finally Gamache realizes that the “milk” everyone was looking for is metaphorical, and the papers are hidden in the very place “she sat down and wept.” “She” is Ruth, and the place is the church. They find the plans hidden under the floorboards, and Rosenblatt verifies their authenticity.

Crisis averted? Not so. Mary Fraser pulls a gun on Gamache, wanting the plans; she is clearly no file clerk. Cohen is at the SHU, being betrayed by a former colleague, with Fleming “slouching” towards his freedom. At the very last moments, Rosenblatt shields Gamache from the gun while Jean-Guy drops the plans in the fire, and Cohen realizes his calls are being blocked and gets through to Lacoste. Fleming is sent back to the SHU, but not before severely freaking everyone out with unworldly shrieks and Cohen’s knowledge that he accidentally spoke Gamache’s name in Fleming’s hearing. 

As for the murders – both Laurent’s and Antoinette’s – our intrepid cops are pretty sure they have their suspect, but they don’t quite have enough evidence yet, so in yet another bit of stagecraft and playacting they set Brian up to incriminate himself, which he does with aplomb. Turns out he put together who Antoinette was long ago, and saw the opportunity to sell the supergun plans to the highest bidder. He’d been in the bistro when Laurent came in shouting about a supergun, knew it was true, but also didn’t know Laurent well enough to realize nobody would believe him. Simple as that.  

Finally, Ruth and Clement return Al Lepage to the US border, where he will finally face justice.

FAVORITE QUOTE

“And Gamache saw Laurent’s father pack up his home, take all his possessions, and move. To that other world. Where nine-year-old boys were killed. A world where nine-year-old boys were murdered. 

Armand Gamache was the moving man, the ferryman, who took him there.

And once across there was no going back.”

These moving lines come just as Gamache is having to break it to the Lepages that their son may not have died in an accident – as horrific as that already is – but may have been murdered. The image of Gamache as ferryman – evocative of Charon and the River Styx – speaks to the weight Gamache must bear, and keep on bearing. Not only must he inform family members that their loved one has died, not only does he break their hearts with that information, but he takes them irrevocably into another world, a worse one than the one they thought they knew, where terrible things happen for no reason. It is almost as though he is the one causing their pain, and he knows it.

CONCLUSION

While The Nature of the Beast requires a bit more readerly suspension of disbelief – a gun so enormous it could fire a missile into orbit, undiscovered in the woods for decades, but so close by a nine-year-old could discover it on foot – its historical veracity and emotional grounding keep the reader along for the ride. 

In an author’s note, Penny explains that Gerald Bull was real, as was Baby Babylon (the version in Highwater, which failed, both in real life and the story). I don’t think it’s necessary for this part to be real for the book to work, but it’s a fascinating, dark bit of history. 

The death of a child strikes a more somber note than many of the others in this series, and gives us a glimpse at a Gamache nearly undone by grief. He’s a bit at sea in this book, without a defined role in the proceedings, but his steady leadership and convictions remain invaluable to his loved ones and former colleagues. He doesn’t need the badge to command authority; he has earned every ounce of respect he receives, and more.

I also appreciated how, at the core of the murder mystery, the deductive process was surprisingly simple: with a few qualifiers applied, there was really only one person it could be, yet I didn’t guess until the very end. (To be fair, I can never guess the murderer.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. This novel is set in early autumn, with many references to apples throughout. What are some
    of those references, and what are some of their symbolic meanings?
  1. In Chapter 4 there is a discussion about whether one can or should separate the quality of art
    from the character of the artist. “You’re an artist,” Reine-Marie says to Clara. “Do you think
    a work should be judged by its creator? Or should it stand on its own?” What do you stand
    on this issue?
  1. How unsettling did you find the murder of a child in the story? Did you feel it was handled
    with appropriate respect and sensitivity? How does the author deal with the effects of the
    death on his friends and family?
  1. The painful search for Laurent in the woods is made even more painful by the scene in
    which the young policemen taunt Gamache. How do you see him at that moment? Does he
    respond as you’d wish?
  1. Ruth says in Chapter 34, “I was nice once, you know. And kind. Perhaps not the most kind,
    >or the nicest, but it was there.” How do you view her character then and now? What guilt
    and other demons is she wrestling with?
  1. What do you think of Professor Rosenblatt, Mary Fraser and Sean Delorme? Why do you
    think they have come to Three Pines, and how does Three Pines look to you through their
    eyes?
  1. As he struggles with regrets over Laurent, the past and present threat of Fleming, and
    decisions about his future, what tough choices does Gamache need to make in the course of >
    the story? What do you think of his decisions?
  1. How does Clara evolve from the beginning of the book to the end (and/or, if you have read
    the previous books, throughout the series)?
  1. How do you view Reine-Marie, both as Armand’s wife and as a character in her own right?
  1. This is the first novel in which Louise has included an historical note. How does the added background affect your view of the story?
  1. How do you interpret the book’s title? Ruth quotes from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
    “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be
    born.” What is the beast? In the poem? In the book? What do those lines mean to you?
  1. The attractions of Three Pines are clearly immense, but so are its dangers: As Beauvoir says, “Where else would the devil go, but to paradise?” If it were a real place, what do you think it would be like to live there?
AuthorLAURA COK is a writer based in Guelph, Ontario. She works for Indigo Books and Music as their Internal Communications Manager.
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