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
- 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.