So. This is going to be a difficult review to write. So many people I know are fond of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. Jenny even put this first book from the series on my list of books to read this year. But, oh dear, I hate to say it, but I was not fond of it at all. It kind of got on my nerves.
First, let me say that cozy mysteries are not my favorite. I often find the portrayal of small-town life to be overly cloying and sentimental, the people a little too quirky to believe. But as small-town cozy-type mysteries go, this one isn’t bad. I mean, of course, the gay couple runs the boutique and coffee shop. And of course there’s an old lady who likes to swing her cane around. But the characters of Three Pines, where the mystery takes place, are given some layers and allowed to be complex. It’s just that the two most interesting characters in the town are dead.
Second, I liked the idea of Chief Inspector Gamache. He’s not a boozy middle-aged man with woman problems. He’s a happily married man who enjoys good food. He is perhaps a bit of a snob, but not so much of a snob that he can’t appreciate the jolt of familiarity from cheap coffee when he’s going out on the job.
As for the mystery itself, it was fine, and the resolution was quite good. The crime is the death of Jane Neal, found dead, shot through with an arrow, just days after she’s had a painting accepted in the local art competition. Jane has painted her whole life, but she never let anyone see her work, so this is a big deal. And the work itself is mysterious—no one can agree on whether it’s good or terrible. (Not so different from books, I guess.) There are red herrings and misdirections, of course, and the ending is surprising but doesn’t appear to come out of nowhere. The wrap-up, where the community deals with the after-effects was handled especially well, taking seriously the problem of not just losing a fried but also discovering a killer in your midst.
All of that leaves us with a well-constructed example of a type of mystery that I don’t necessarily love but can enjoy from time to time. That might make this book a minor disappointment, but it’s nothing to be annoyed about. So what was the problem?
The main issue I had with this book—and it niggled at me like a bit of popcorn husk in the back of the throat—was the treatment the new trainee detective, Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her, she’s eager, perhaps a little over-eager, in fact, and obviously still learning how to work on a team. But Gamache’s second-in-command, Beauvoir, and, it seems, Gamache himself quickly write her off as totally incompetent. And so she proves to be, but given how the story was constructed, it’s hard not to read it as a self-fulfilling kind of prophesy. She’s clumsy in her communication and therefore treated with scorn which makes her all the more clumsy next time.
Gamache only once makes a serious effort at coaching her, and he flubs it without Nichol recognizing the flub. When she later—rather hilariously—repeats his flub back to him, he doesn’t understand. He later gets furious at her for not recognizing his mistake. And then there’s the time she presents what appears to be a strong case against one of the characters:
“Any holes in the theory?” Beauvoir asked the gather, trying not to sound hopeful. While he hoped Nichol would prove not a total liability, this was a disastrously good showing.
It’s possible that we’re meant to see Nichol’s situation as an example of how hard it is to do the job well and how the experienced establishment is always looking for the new person—or the new woman—to fail. But there’s not much in the narrative to support that reading. Nichol is incompetent, and she is given little mercy. But it’s hard to see how she could be any good unless she’s some kind of natural wuderkind, which might create a whole different set of problems.
The scenes with Nichol make up a relatively small portion of the book, so they might not be enough to bother readers who love all the other elements. Indeed, some readers might not be as annoyed by the treatment of Nichol as I was. Perhaps there’s something I missed that makes her colleagues’ behavior early on seem less unfair! But as it was, every scene with her ended up grating and turning me against people I think I was supposed to like. The rest of the book wasn’t good enough to get me past that, I’m sorry to say.