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.