The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol

Y, look! The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is almost at the end of our treacherous trip through the alphabet – just one more stop after this. My thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us safely together. We’ve stopped today in the historic village of Y, and everyone’s excited about the walking tour we’ll be taking. Before we leave, let me share my contribution for this week: Louise Penny’s Agent Yvette Nichol.

When we first meet her in Still Life, Nichol has just been named to the Sûreté du Québec and on several levels this represents a dream come true for her. She is the daughter of Czech immigrants to Canada and wants more than anything else to prove, mostly to her father Ari, that she can make good in their new country. Nichol also has a strong need to belong and fit in. She is neither French nor English, so in a cultural sense she doesn’t have a feeling of being part of an ‘us.’ That’s one reason being on the Sûreté team is all the more important to her.

When Nichol is assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache she gets her chance to demonstrate what a skilled agent she can be. Gamache has the best reputation in the Sûreté du Québec and is known for his skill at working with new agents. Nichol knows that too and she believes she’s well placed and set for great success. But it’s not long before everything begins to fall apart.

For one thing, Nichol is incompetent although she is not stupid. In both Still Life and A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Nichol seriously compromises investigations. She bullies witnesses, takes decisions without thinking through them and more. Most new agents have a lot to learn, but what makes Nichol’s incompetence all the worse is that she is also arrogant and smug. At first, Gamache and his second-in-command Jean Guy Beauvoir welcome Nichol warmly and try to teach her. But it’s not long before especially Beauvoir begins to see that Nichol refuses to do what she’s told. Even Gamache eventually sees that Nichol doesn’t pay attention to advice, doesn’t try to learn from what her team-mates do, and does little to be a part of the group. What’s worst from Gamache’s point of view is that she doesn’t listen. Even after Gamache directly tells her what she needs to do, she still won’t learn.

And this is when Nichol shows another side of her personality: she is duplicitous. When Gamache finally removes her from the team, instead of reflecting on what she’s done and how she could learn, Nichol chooses to blame Gamache personally. In fact, she tells herself he is jealous of her and is trying to sabotage her career for that reason. So she finds her own way of dealing with what she sees as his attack on her. To say more about this would spoil an important story arc that goes across several of the novels in the Gamache series, so I won’t.  Suffice it to say that Nichol does not go quietly.

Yvette Nichol is not a friendly, pleasant person. She’s not particularly likeable or trustworthy either. She is lonely, but that’s mostly her own doing. So why would I profile her for this meme? One reason is that she isn’t a simple ‘cardboard cutout’ of a nemesis for Gamache. She’s a complex person. Her deep-seated insecurity and desperate need to belong and to be admired are not surprising given her very dysfunctional family. I’m most emphatically not saying that that excuses what she does. But it does explain her attitude and her actions and we can have a measure of sympathy for her. In my opinion (So feel free to differ with me if you do) Penny does a highly effective job of depicting a complex, damaged person whose professional decisions are deeply affected by that, as anti-social as those decisions are.

Nichol may be unpleasant in a lot of ways, but she is a survivor. Despite everything she manages to stay with the Sûreté. Here, from Bury Your Dead, is Beauvoir’s view of her:

 

‘She was the agent no one wanted. The agent who couldn’t be fired because she wasn’t quite incompetent or insubordinate enough. But she sure played around the cliff…
Any normal person would have quit. Any decent agent would have resigned. Like the witch trials of old. If she sank, she was innocent, if she survived she was a witch.
Agent Nichol was a witch.’

 

And that’s another thing one has to acknowledge about her. Nichol has raw survival skills and perseverance. And that combination makes her an interesting character.

She also shows readers a great deal about Gamache. As Gamache interacts with her, we learn about his patience, his far-sightedness and his dedication to the Sûreté and its agents. We also learn that he is a brilliant thinker and understands more about human nature than Nichol thinks he does. It’s an interesting and effective way to give readers a different perspective on the protagonist of a series.

Nichol also provides an ongoing thread of tension in the series. The story arc involving her adds a layer of interest, conflict and richness to the series. That’s mostly because she’s not a stereotypical ‘arch-enemy.’

Yvette Nichol isn’t a particularly nice person and although she has certain skills, she’s not a brilliant cop either. But she is shrewd, tough in her own way and determined. She’s a complicated character and her history with Gamache adds insight into his character. It also adds a rich layer to the series.

24 Comments

Filed under Louise Penny, Yvette Nichol

24 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol

  1. Margot- I agree that she’s not a stereotypical character, and she does keep the series interesting (at least as far as I’ve read). It’s nice that Penny is realistic about dysfunctional co-workers. Nice post!

    • Rebecca – Thank you :-) – You’ve put your finger on one thing that I really like about Yvette Nichol: she adds to the series. As you say, she’s not stereotypical and I think that’s because Penny gives her some depth. And yes indeed, Penny is realistic about working with people like Nichol.

  2. Another new author and character for me Margot – sounds like quite a difficult approach for a continuing series though sounds like it is taking a less trodden path quite deliberately – hard not to admire that in a cookie-counter age. Thanks for the insights, as ever!

    Sergio

    • Sergio – I hope that, if you have the chance to try this series, you’ll like it. It’s a series I enjoy very much and think is quite strong. You’re right too that Penny doesn’t travel the easy path in creating her characters or conflicts. That’s part of what I like so much about the series actually.

  3. Margot: I have a hard time with Yvette. I dislike her. I dislike how she acts. I dislike her continuing role. Does that mean she is a worthy continuing character? I dislike thinking that is possible.

    • Bill – I’ll be honest; I don’t like Yvette either. She’s not a nice character and I don’t like the way she acts. I think it’s entirely possible for a character to serve a purpose in a series and then not continue when that purpose has been served. That is, the character is worth continuing for that one purpose but not for others. So I think it’s entirely possible to dislike a character but still see that that character serves a purpose in the series. Or that could be just me. Does that make sense?

  4. Already at Y! That flew by. :)

    Yvette is a fascinating character to me because just when she’s infuriated me, Penny will write something about her that makes me give her another chance. Can’t remember another time that’s happened for me in a series.

    • Elizabeth – This meme has gone by so incredibly fast, hasn’t it? And I think you’ve exactly nailed part of Yvette Nichol’s staying power. She isn’t one-dimensional, so every once in a while we get a glimpse of another part of her character. I still don’t like her, but I do like that there’s more to her than just those negative traits.

  5. I really love this character and this series. Complicated characters are the ones that stick with me the longest. Thanks for the post.

    • Clarissa – I like complicated characters myself, and this series is one that I especially like. I will say I don’t like Yvette Nichol as a person; I don’t think we’re supposed to feel ‘warm fuzzies’ about her. But I do think she’s interesting and I do see, I think, what her role in the novels is.

  6. Cannot wait to see the TV adaptation of this series.I have great faith Canadian TV will do it justice.

  7. Margot, I hope I can disagree with your last sentence. I don’t think Nichol adds anything to the series except for a lot of frustration, especially in STILL LIFE, where she is so dense that it really makes you wonder how she got into the force in the first place. I really, really hated this character, I’m sad to say, and I didn’t find anything about her interesting. That being said, I hope it’s possible to have an amicable disagreement– the last time I tried expressing an alternate POV about Louise Penny I was nearly mauled to death by crazy fanboys/fangirls.

    • Patrick – You’re certainly welcome to disagree with me. Let’s face it: Yvette Nichol is not a nice character. I don’t blame you one bit for truly disliking her. The fact that I find her role in the story arc featuring her interesting doesn’t mean you have to. And I should also add that you’re not alone. Nichol is not exactly going to win any ‘Miss Congeniality” awards.

  8. I have only read one of this series. And I don’t remember much about that book or Yvette. But I am going to catch up with the series soon, so I will be interested to see what I think about this character. Thanks for the profile.

    • Tracy – I’ll be interested to see what you think of Yvette Nichol’s character when you get back into the series. I hope you’ll post about it or let me know.

  9. Ah. :) another country as our quest is coming to an end.

  10. I am reading this now! I don’t really care for Nichol’s character either. I thought maybe she would evolve as the story went but I take it she doesn’t

    • Peggy – Oh, what timing! Nichol isn’t a particularly nice character, so I’m not surprised you don’t much like her. She plays a role in a story arc you’ll experience as you continue the series, so we follow her for a bit, but no, she doesn’t become a nice, loving, compassionate person…

  11. Jody Hamilton

    Ahhh, a few years have passed and a few more novels about Gamache and his agents have been published. The role of Agent Nichol becomes significant, and perhaps less despised.

    Without a doubt, this series is my favorite among favorites. Louise Penny is a talented writer.

    • Jody – Yes, the role of Agent Nichol does become clearer and more important as the series goes on, doesn’t it? I agree with you that this is a wonderful series, and Penny a gifted writer.

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