The Nature of the Beast

Louise Penny. The Nature of the Beast. New York:
Minotaur Books, 2015.
As reviewed by Ted Odenwald

beastRetirement offers no rest or refuge for Louise Penny’s protagonist, Armand Gamache, the former Chief Inspector or Quebec’s Surete. After a nine-year-old boy dies in an apparent biking accident in the forest near the village of Three Pines, Gamache observes some inconsistencies in the police conclusions: the positions of the body and the bicycle and the absence of the boy’s ever-present “weapon” for fending off evil all lead to Gamache’s conclusion that the boy had died elsewhere—probably murdered—and his body had been moved. The former officer feels compelled to become involved because he and the entire village had ignored the boy’s claim that he had discovered a “humungous gun” with the figure of a winged monster on its barrel.

Finding the gun, tracking its history, discovering the names of its creators, and determining how this background led to the boy’s death are all key elements of this multi-layered plot line of Penny’s eleventh Inspector Gamache novel. The retired inspector’s investigation leads to a face-to-face confrontation with the “beast,” John Fleming, a brilliant, diabolical serial killer, who epitomizes the world of evil which had deeply wounded Gamache in the later years of his career. Fleming is a satanic figure, who is able to enter and control the minds and souls of others; his threatening “shadow” reaches out through the bars of his maximum security cell.

In her epilogue, Penny explains that the supergun was real, part of “Project Bablyon,” built in the 1980’s by Gerald Bull, a Canadian physicist and arms dealer. His enormous weapon was entirely mechanical, could be disassembled, moved, and reassembled, and could fire missiles into orbit, giving it enormous range. Bull was assassinated in 1990, probably because he intended to sell the missile launcher to Saddam Hussein. Penny uses Bull’s story as background for this novel; supposedly, Project Babylon had failed, but Bull and his accomplices had built two weapons: a small one which did not work, and a much larger one which could work, but was hidden. Though nearly 25 years have passed since Bull’s death, his plans are especially valuable, for whoever can build this weapon can control an enormous region. The young boy had died because he had found proof that the supergun had been manufactured.

Gamache knows well the extent of John Fleming’s depravity, having witnessed a trial years earlier in which Fleming’s atrocities were revealed in a closed, secret court session. The inspector is sickened to learn as he settles into retirement in Three Pines, that the local drama group is producing a comedy written by Fleming: She Sat Down and Wept. Gamache insists that the play be set aside: “If John Fleming created it, it’s grotesque. It can’t help but be…in every word, every action by the characters. The creator and the creation are one….” The “beast’s” demons will be released upon the world again.

Gamache suspects that it is no coincidence that Fleming’s play title resembles a segment of a Psalm etched in Hebrew on the launcher: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept.” Pictured in the etching is a monster with seven heads driven by a woman, who represents the “Whore of Babylon.” Clearly the etching is an allusion to Armageddon, and the destruction of the world as we know it. Gamache is certain that the etching is a reflection of Fleming’s diabolical plans.

Further investigation reveals that Bull and Fleming had worked with a physicist, Guillaume Couture, a Three Pines who is now deceased, and whose surviving niece has inherited his home; in that home, the niece’s companion had discovered Fleming’s play among the uncle’s papers. The “beast” had been in this hidden village for an extended period of time working on this enormous weapon. Ruth Zardo, the resident poet (and nonagenarian), knows quite a bit about the gun and about Fleming, but has been ashamed to reveal that information; years earlier, she had displayed cowardice by directing Fleming toward the artist who eventually drew the sketch for the etching; she had sensed the evil of the “beast,” and betrayed someone who had trusted her. This betrayal still haunts her as she writes down lines from W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last—slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” She knows the destructive power of Fleming and of the project which he had helped to oversee. “If Babylon had a flesh and blood equivalent, it was John Fleming. A weapon of mass destruction without thought or conscience.”

Laurent LePage, the 9-year-old victim, had given his life to protect his village. Gamache’s efforts are to see that the boy has not died in vain and that the evil influence of “the beast” is confined.

tedTed Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 45 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.