It’s a Mystery: “Fear is the parent of cruelty”
A Great Reckoning
By Louise Penny
The One Man
By Andrew Gross
Closed Casket:The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
By Sophie Hannah
William Morrow, 2016
The incomparable Rex Stout made an oft-repeated vow that he refused to die before Agatha Christie “because of what I would miss.” I feel that way about Louise Penny. A Great Reckoning is the 12th entry (after 2015’s The Nature of the Beast) in her stellar series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.
In A Great Reckoning, Gamache has a new gig. Retired as head of the Sûreté du Quebec, the most successful homicide department in Canada, he’s been appointed commander of the Sûreté Academy. The once prestigious police school has become a hotbed of corruption, unrivaled in turning out bent cops. To Gamache, routing out the colossal transgressions rampant in the Academy is tantamount to cleaning the Aegean stables.
To his beloved wife Reine-Marie, Gamache seems ready to take on this new challenge. He’s recovered from the havoc and turmoil of several years back (2013’s How the Light Gets In). They have settled into a comfortable life in the tiny village of Three Pines just over the Canadian border. The village and its captivating, idiosyncratic denizens are an integral part of every Penny novel, especially the local bistro whose walls play a pivotal role here. They yield an old map. Not just any map but a cartographic curiosity that is quite probably the only map ever made of Three Pines. As any mystery buff worth their smelling salts can attest, the map is a bona fide MacGuffin.
As Gamache begins his first term as commander, Reine-Marie reflects somewhat ruefully on how he has spent his time leading up to this and what, in fact, he has already wrought:
She knew the changes he’d implemented were controversial, even revolutionary. Against all logic, and advice, he’d kept on the most senior and corrupt professor, Serge Leduc. He’d gone to Gaspé and tracked down the quisling Michel Brébeuf. He’d brought in sweeping changes to the curriculum, and gone through each and every application for admission, changing many of the dots from green to red and vice versa.
He’d also encouraged the students and staff to volunteer in the community. He wanted them to be at the disposal of the mayor of Saint-Alphonse, where the academy was located, in times of need. The mayor and the new commander would work together. Except that the mayor was treating Gamache and his suggestions with a marked lack of enthusiasm bordering on disdain. This attitude stems, Gamache learns, from Leduc’s act of appropriating land for the academy right in the center of town that he knew was reserved for a much-longed-for recreation center:
It was an act of betrayal not easily forgiven, and never forgotten…. The community didn’t want anything to do with the academy, the deceitful bastards.
…”All the more reason to reach out, don’t you think?” Gamache had said to Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his former second-in-command and now his son-in-law as they sat together one evening…
“I think you go out of your way to find mountains to climb,” said Beauvoir.
Gamache had laughed. “The Sûreté Academy is more like a great big hole filled with merde. And I’ve fallen into it.”
“Fallen, patron? As I remember it, you jumped.”
Soon Beauvoir, who is now a star in the force, also jumps. At his revered patron’s request, he goes on leave for a term which, according to Gamache, is all the time they have and becomes his back up.
Almost at once the merde hits the fan. Someone fatally shoots Serge Leduc. Since he was a sadistic, manipulative bully, there is no shortage of suspects among the faculty, including Gamache. When a copy of the map turns up in Serge Leduc’s night table the list of suspects grows to include four cadets. It turns out that Gamache had taken these particular cadets under his wing because he thought them to be particularly vulnerable. He made copies of the map for each one so they could explore its mystery and hone their investigative skills. He also hoped the exercise would keep them out of mischief. Alas, the copy in the night table does anything but. Its presence certainly further implicates Gamache.
In A Great Reckoning Penny is in top form. She has created a mesmerizing puzzle rich in revelations about two of the series’ most persistent questions. What is the origin of Three Pines as a mystical village a la Brigadoon, that only appears for people who need it? What is there about Gamache’s past that makes him such an enigma even to those closest to him? At the same time, she offers a complex, compelling mystery with some flawed, but deeply empathetic characters. Oh, a few are quite evil. But, as Gamache notes, quoting Auden, “Evil is unspectacular and always human.”
The evil that pervades Andrew Gross’s The One Man is light years away from Gamache’s world. The horrors of the Holocaust, in this case the infamous death camp Auschwitz, are on full display here, and the ubiquitous malevolence is as inhuman as it is incomprehensible.
In the spring of 1944, both the Germans and the Allies are frantically working to devise the weapon to end the war. Gross postulates that by the end of 1943, Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, the most heavily guarded research facility bar none, in concert with the world’s most renowned physicists, concluded they lacked one vital component:
The biggest obstacle they now faced was the separation of U-235 from its weightier and much more prevalent cousin, U-238, and in quantities sufficient to produce a series of suitable chain reactions.
… New compounds were being constructed. And it was all in a race against the clock, as they feared the Germans were ahead of them.
And to the winner went the war.
They narrow it down from three possible methods of separation to one: the gaseous diffusion process. They come up with the names of the only two experts in the field. One, Bergstrom, is “now in bed with Heisenberg” in Germany. The other is Alfred Mendl, a Polish professor of electromagnetics. But, Oppenheimer says, “I’m not sure he never made it out of Europe.”
By May 1944, President Roosevelt’s inner circle has Mendl’s name on its radar. Captain Peter Strauss, aide to William Donovan head of the OSS, has located the professor and has a plan. Mendl is incarcerated in Auschwitz, where he’s survived the death of his wife and daughter. He also had to watch while all of his papers, his books, his life’s work, were burned by the Nazis, who have no idea what they destroyed. Strauss wants to smuggle an operative into the camp to get Mendl out.
One man. We drop him in at night nearby. We link him up with local partisans, whom we’ve already made contact with. We can sneak him into the camp. Then he has seventy-two hours to find his mark. And get them both out.
The plan meets with incredulity coupled with a heavy dose of skepticism. Still, Strauss and Donovan are persuasive and the stakes are too high not to risk it. The man singled out for the mission is an intelligence lieutenant working in DC. His name is Nathan Blum. Strauss passes around a photo:
“He came here from Warsaw in 1941,” Strauss explained. “He snuck out of the Krakow ghetto and risked his life to carry a revered religious document to safety in Sweden. He spent a year at Northwestern, where he was the school’s lightweight boxing champion, then he enlisted. He’s fluent in four languages, including Polish and German.
“And you think he’ll do this?” Roosevelt looked at the photo and then handed it back to Strauss. “Go back to the very place he risked his life to escape from? On a wild goose chase to find this one man?”
“We think there’s a good chance he will,” Colonel Donovan cut in…” There’s one other thing…”
“And that is…?” Roosevelt’s war-heavy eyes fell on him.
“His entire family was killed by the Germans six months after he was here.” Donovan looked the president in the eyes. “According to those who know him, he feels he left them there to die.”
So Blum is trained for “one of the most vital missions of the war.” No detail is overlooked, down to the number tattooed on his arm, which belonged to a real prisoner. Armed with enough loot for hefty bribes sewn into his clothes, plus the requisite cyanide pills, he is now Mierek, a Polish carpenter. As he flies over Poland, a telephone call he received from Roosevelt is etched in his memory, especially FDR’s command: “Do not fail.”
Once the narrative moves to Auschwitz, the tension is palpable. We are afraid for Blum, moving through the camp at his peril to find the professor. Meanwhile, Mendl has been watching 16-year-old Leo Wolciek, a chess wizard with a phenomenal memory. Such is Leo’s chess prowess that Greta, the wife of the Lagerkommandant who runs the camp, has “invited” him to play with her. The games with her are, of course, not without risk. As are the secret sessions that Mendl has with Leo, getting him to memorize a vast amount of scientific knowledge. Mendl feels his health slipping and he hopes that somehow Leo will get this crucial knowledge into the Allies hands. It’s a fairly improbable hope. Add to the mix a Nazi intelligence officer who has intercepted a cable that makes him suspect something’s up in the camp and is determined to find it. He convinces the high command to send him from Warsaw to Auschwitz.
Every moment counts in this deeply moving story. The Mendl plot is fictitious, but the novel’s background and many of the characters are historically based. Expect the unexpected to the very end. The One Man is a heart stopping, often terrifying tale of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and the marvels of how the human spirit can survive and endure against all odds.
Speaking of Agatha Christie, her incomparable Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, is back in Closed Casket. It is Sophie Hannah’s second Christie pastiche and I think it’s a safe assumption that Dame Agatha is looking down upon Hannah with a benevolent smile. For openers, the milieu of this mystery is the country house, a whodunit setting at which Christie excelled.
Closed Casket begins in October 1929. It reunites Poirot and Scotland Yard’s Edward Catchpool (after 2014’s The Monogram Murders). They are guests at Lillieoak, the Palladian mansion in Ireland’s County Cork of Lady Athelinda (Athie) Playford. She is a highly successful author of children’s mysteries. The question is: Why have the detectives been invited?
The diminutive Belgian ponders this as he welcomes Catchpool as his cher ami, and wastes no time in giving him a précis of the inhabitants of the manor. First and foremost there is Althie’s son and daughter and their significant others. As Poirot tells it, they are just your above average, very rich dysfunctional family. They are all probably more in need of a shrink than a sleuth.
Then at dinner, Lady Playford announces that she has disinherited them all and left her entire estate to her secretary. What follows is mayhem and murder with a strange twist. There is a delectable assortment of red herrings all splendidly marinated the cold case, the little blue bottle, the white dressing gown, the full water glass, and Shakespeare’s King John. And, of course, the plot could not advance without a surfeit of eavesdropping. Not to mention the constant, maddening refrain: “I’ll tell you after the inquest.” Only nobody does.
It takes all of Poirot’s worldly experience, his little grey cells working overtime, and a lot of fancy footwork to solve this one. By the time he and Catchpool (who makes a startling contribution) gather everyone in the drawing room, they are all champing at the bit for the solution. Well, all save one:
From the front of the room, Poirot gave a small bow…. “This is not by any means the first murder I have investigated,” he began. “It is, however, one of the most straightforward. So many questions I have wrestled with, and yet the solution to this puzzle is breathtakingly simple…yes, I would be forced to say that it was an elegant crime…. All did not go as planned, but if it had…” Poirot’s face was grave. “When evil makes itself orderly, the danger is severe.”
So we have yet another take on evil. And once again, Sophie Hannah shows us she is more than capable of donning Christie’s mantle and running with it well into the 21st century.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.