Fear And Evil Lurk In Idyllic Village [book review]

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Take one idyllic village buried deep in the Québec countryside

Add a bunch of memorable characters who include a duck loving poet and a rather portly host of the village bistro.

Finally, mix in a police chief with a penchant for Marcus Aurelius and an instinctive understanding of human nature. 

This, in essence, is the recipe for the highly successful Armand Gamache series of crime fiction by Louise Penny.

There are 14 novels in the series to date – the 15th comes out in the next few weeks. I’ve read eight and there hasn’t been a dud among them. 

My latest venture into Armand’s world was via The Cruelest Month which is book number three in the series.

It takes its title from the most frequently quoted line in  T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. And it picks up Eliot’s theme of rebirth and new life.

Gamache took the bread to the long pine table, set for dinner, then returned to the living room. He reflected on T.S. Eliot and thought the poet had called April the cruelest month not because it killed flowers and buds on the trees, but because sometimes it didn’t. How difficult it was for those who didn’t bloom when all about was new life and hope.

The spirit of re-birth is alive in the tiny village of Three Pines. It’s Easter. Spring is on its way. And the villagers are celebrating the first signs of new life in the trees and in their gardens. 

But the fun and festivity of the annual Easter Egg hunt is overshadowed by an evil from the past. 

On a hill above the village stands the old Hadley House, the scene of some very nasty events in the previous novel A Fatal Grace. The atmosphere of malevolence has never completely gone away.

When a group of friends hold a seance in the house to rid the place of its past, one of them dies. Of fright? Or was she murdered? That’s the question Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must answer.

As they uncover long-held rivalries and secrets, Armand Gamache has to confront his own worst fears. Someone seems hell bent on damaging his reputation and destroying his career.

Just like the other books in the series, The Cruelest Month has a plot with enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. But the plot isn’t the most important aspect of this novel.. It’s the setting of the picturesque Québec village of Three Pines and the character of Armand Gamache that give this book, and indeed the whole series, its edge.

Enticing Magical Village Setting

The Cruelest Month takes us once more to Three Pines; a place so tiny that it doesn’t even figure on a map. Yet it boasts a bistro that becomes a home from home for the detectives (food figures large in every book) and a bookshop presided over by Myrna Landers, a black psychologist. It’s residents include Ruth Zardo, a blunt-spoken award-winning poet with a pet duck and Clara Morrow, a respected painter.

It’s the kind of place in which I could happily take up residence. In fact I cherish the hope that one day one of those cottages will come up for sale….. Until then I have to see it through Gamache’s eyes.

The mountains rose graciously on the far side, folding into each other, their slopes covered with a fuzz of lime green buds. He could smell not just the pine now, but the very earth, and other aromas. The musky rich scent of dried autumn leaves, the wood smoke rising from the chimneys below, and something else. He lifted his head and inhaled again, softly this time. There, below the bolder aromas, sat a subtler scent. The first of the spring flowers.

That setting and its comfortable social structure is of course one of the hallmarks of a traditional murder mystery. But although Louise Penny uses this – and other traditional devices like a careful questioning of suspects and well reasoned deductions – she goes also one step further with a psychologically astute dimension.

Behind every crime Armand Gamache investigates lies a tale of raw emotion and human tragedy. In The Cruelest Month we’re talking of jealousy and how kindness can turn to murderous intent.

Astute Psychological Insight

What I love about this series is how Louise Penny introduces a new psychological concept in each novel. Gamache has a natural ability to see beyond the facts to the emotion that often his suspects are at pains to hide. But in The Cruelest Month, his resident psychologist suggests what he’s dealing with is “the near enemy.”

Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other; is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other ‘s sick, twisted. … Attachment masquerades as Love; Pity as as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.

While I love the settings and the characters of these novels, it’s the psychological dimension and the way they draw upon other influences that I enjoy the most. How often do you come across another crime novel which as seamlessly incorporates psychological theory as it does poetry, Marcus Aurelius and the Bible?

The Cruelest Month: Fast Facts

Louise Penny
  • The Cruelest Month is the third title in the series of novels by Louise Penny featuring her Canadian chief police inspector Armand Gamache.
  • The series began with Still Life in 2006. The latest episode , A Better Man, is due for publication end of August 2019
  • Each of the books in the series is meant to be a stand-alone tale although Louise Penny does recommend they are read in order. Her advice is based the progression of the characters from book to book.
  • Based on my experience with this series I think if you read out of sequence you’ll miss a lot of the drama of what happens to Gamache himself
  • Details of each book be found on Louise Penny’s website
  • If you like what you find there there is another site she calls her ‘virtual bistro’ where she reflects on each book and explains what inspired her thinking and readers can post questions/comments.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 15, 2019, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Another mystery series I have added to my list of them. I am trying to finish up about 6 series before I add more but you have explained to me why some readers love her and some are left feeling meh. Thanks for a masterful review!

  2. I too am enjoying this series enormously for all the reasons you’ve given. I wasn’t aware of the virtual bistro. Off to explore that now 🙂

  3. These books always sound so good! I still have the first one waiting to be read. I suspect that subconsciously I might be avoiding it in case I get hooked…

  4. Nothing quite like loosing oneself & some hours in a Penny book.

    But here is a question for anyone more read in the genre of cozy mysteries – is there any other series out there, in the big world of books, resembling Penny’s series?

    • That’s a challenging question Sigrun 🙂 The blogger who recommended Louise Penny to me has also highlighted a series by Caz Frear featuring DC Cat Kinsella and
      William Broderick’s early novels (though I think they may be historical crime fiction). Anyway you have set me a puzzle which I’m going to ask my Twitter followers to help me solve

  5. I do enjoy crime novels with a strong sense of place, and that certainly seems to be the case here, particularly given your comments about the setting. It’s also impressive to hear that Penny has managed to sustain a high level quality across the majority of the series – not an easy thing to do when there are 14 (soon to be 15) instalments to work through.

    • So true Jacqui, you’d have thought she would have run out of plots by now. She did put a pause on the series for a while because her husband who was partly an inspiration for her detective character, died after a long illness

  6. So glad to see your enthusiasm for this series. There’s so much human-ness. I was personally a bit disappointed by #14, BUT #15 is back to awesome!!

  7. piningforthewest

    I started this series a couple of years ago and am up to date with it, I read them all in order. I love Three Pines and all of the quirky characters. After the death of Penny’s husband I really thought she might not write any more as Gamache was sort of modelled on her husband, but she managed to write another book, a way of keeping her husband alive I think.

  8. I have just been sent a copy of the new one but am having to put it to one side until the Summer School is over because of I once start it all preparation will immediately cease. Next Friday evening however …….

  9. Rachel Bridgeman

    Love this review! looking forward to reading this book, haven’t read a Louise Penny in a while!

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