The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

Summer CSANews Issue 67  |  Posted date : Jul 22, 2008.Back to list

If you haven't yet visited the exquisite little village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, you're in for a treat. The Cruellest Month is the third in the award-winning, Chief Inspector Gamache series, written by Canadian author Louise Penny. This intriguing tale of seances, suspense and being scared to death can certainly stand on its own, but I'd strongly advise starting with the earlier Still Life and then Dead Cold, to gradually meet and care about the eccentric inhabitants of this magical Shangri-La, Three Pines: "Once found it was never forgotten. But it was only found by people lost."  Penny has a wonderful knack of turning a phrase. The visiting psychic/witch describes Three Pines as...."a community of great kindness and compassion" (except when they're killing each other!). Gamache's sidekick Beauvoir muses; "Doesn't anyone die a normal death in Three Pines?"

A memorable cast of characters makes up the soul of Three Pines. Clara and Peter Morrow are middle-aged artists; Peter is already acclaimed and Clara is searching for her style. Then there is Ruth Zardo, a famous poet, but one with a wickedly profane tongue. In this book, Ruth is followed by two little ducklings who think that she is their mother. Clara describes her as "old and nuts."

The bookstore owner is Myrna, a retired psychotherapist from Montreal. As the villagers get ready for Easter, Myrna "looks like a massive Easter egg herself, black and oval and wrapped in a brilliant purple and red caftan."

Finally, there is the couple who provide the flavour and texture of Three Pines; Olivier of Olivier's Bistro, famous for his goat cheese and arugula or grilled chicken and mango baguettes, and his partner Gabri, who runs a B&B where Gamache and his team stay while they solve Three Pines' murders. The B&B is a wonderful old country house that had once been a stagecoach stop on the route between Williamsburg and St-Rémy.

In all three books, the tranquility of this pastoral little refuge in the woods, with winding lanes and no street lights, is balanced by the looming evil of the Old Hadley House. "It was the menace on the hill, poised waiting for the right moment to sweep down on those below." It was in this old Hadley House that Madeleine Favreau was scared to death. Chief Inspector Gamache was called in when an autopsy revealed that there was the drug ephedra in the victim's blood. Could the death have been caused by supernatural powers or human malice? Which?

As a subplot, while investigating this case, Gamache himself is surrounded by treachery and betrayal from within the ranks of the Sûreté du Québec. It's a residue of a lingering scandal; of a time, "when that loyal and cohesive organization started making war on its own. It put its wagons in a circle and shot inwards." Gamache must trust no one.

This all sounds very grim, but the joy of reading Louise Penny's prose is that the book is sprinkled with laugh-out-loud parts. This is a group of witty, intelligent, sophisticated professionals, isolated, and such good friends that they feel free to say absolutely outrageous things to and about each other. Other leavening spices are the poetry, (good and bad) puns and literary allusions.

Penny's second book, Dead Cold, won the Agatha award for traditional mystery in the U.S. These books do have the cosy feel of Agatha Christie novels, but Penny's are so much more complex. Her description of grief is universal."You didn't lose a loved one. You lost your heart, your memories, your laughter and your brain...... Eventually, it all comes back, but different. Rearranged"........ "People wanted me to know that I wasn't alone, but I was."

Penny weaves the strands of the plot and subplot into a dramatic double-barrelled conclusion. The Cruellest Month is even better on second reading and we can all look forward to our next encounter with Chief Inspector Gamache. Number four is already in the works!

Willa McLean is a freelance writer who lives in Kitchener