Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Louise Penny has certainly drawn the little community of Three Pines from its relative forgotten obscurity in A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, and the third entry, The Cruelest Month, brings it right back to the foreground of Quebec news. Celebrating Easter, the people of Three Pines decide to hold a seance to clear the evil spirits, when one of them dies of fright. Foul play is nowhere to be found, but Gamache’s experience tells him otherwise.
Table of contents
Louise Penny Creates the Supernatural Murder
The realm of detective stories has without question changed over time towards a grittier, and I suppose a more realistic depiction of murder and its consequences. While I certainly understand the need to treat the subject with the gravity it deserves, I can’t help but rejoice when the world makes some space for a bit of the good old conventions, like it did for The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny.
The third book in Penny‘s A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, it doesn’t really require you to have read the previous novels, although there is an overarching plot which gets touched upon bit by bit in each book. Feel free to take a look at our Still Life review as well as our Fatal Grace review if you’d like to see what the first two books in the series were all about.
Moving on to the actual plot of the book, the action takes us back to the serene and pastoral vista of Three Pines, a forgotten and idyllic (except for the occasional murder) small village in the province of Quebec, Canada. The Spring has finally come to grace the people of the village, and in turn they carry out some grand celebrations.
Love wants the best for others. Attachment takes hostages.― Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month
Eventually, the celebrations lead to an Easter seance, with the purpose of driving out any and all evil which might be lurking in the village. In and of itself, the seance isn’t too strange of a practice for the village, until one of the party suddenly dies of fright… or at least, so it appears.
With evidence of foul play being suspected, the ever-polite Chief Inspector Gamache from the Surete du Quebec is sent to the village to lead the investigation. Having nearly nothing to start with and the event actually looking like an honest-to-God accident, the Chief Inspector has a long and complicated mess of threads to unravel before him.
The Old Investigative Methods in The Cruelest Month
There is no denying forensic evidence has pushed the field of criminology towards new heights its founders could only dream of, but when it comes to the domain of detective fiction, I always find it more interesting when it takes a back-seat to interrogation and logical deduction. With this novel, as with the rest of the series, those two elements are the leading force in Gamache’s investigation.
While he is, of course, supplemented by the minimum science required to do his job, the village of Three Pines essentially pulls him into a pocket world where is forced to rely on his own wits and instincts, just like the good old days of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.
Clara was that rare combination: she was sensible and sensitive.― Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month
In other words, the bulk of the actual investigation by Gamache is spent either talking to people, or piecing together multiple pieces of evidence to hopefully arrive at a revelation. In my opinion, this is the best kind of approach to a mystery novel because it makes it easy for the reader to not only follow along, but also become involved and try to race the protagonist towards the solution.
If I had to compare the mystery in The Cruelest Month to the previous ones, I believe I’d rate it as being slightly more complicated, but as usual, handled with the utmost mastery characteristic of writers who have given themselves to this genre.
Everything unfolds at a fast enough pace to avoid boredom, but also moves slowly enough to allow you the time to absorb the information you’re given and think a little. There are some good red herrings thrown in along the way, as well as plot twists which genuinely managed to surprise me. All in all, it really felt like it aligned itself with the classic works of the genre in regards to the mystery itself.
A Village with Something to Say
If you’re familiar with Louise Penny‘s novels, then you already know the mystery and its resolution make up only one part of what makes the Chief Inspector Gamache series so enjoyable. Along with the murder investigation we are also treated to a great amount of character development as well as excursions into the lives of Three Pines’ residents.
For starters, I’d just like to note how much I adore Gamache as a character, or more precisely, how much I adore the way he contrasts with modern protagonists in police procedural as well as mystery and crime novels in general.
Armand Gamache found murderers by following the trail of rancid emotions.― Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month
Whereas they tend to be tragic, half-broken, generally impolite, and flawed in all the possible ways which wouldn’t prevent them from doing their jobs, Gamache is essentially the contrary to this archetype. Civil, gentle, a thinker with a sense of humour, our Chief Inspector is actually a character I can find it in me to care for and appreciate.
We learn a little more about him and his past, most notably the Arnot Case which happened before the first book in the series. It adds some nice dramatic elements to the overall story, making it clear Gamache doesn’t have an exact idea of who he can or cannot trust.
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As far as the village of Three Pines goes, we once again get to meet the large cast of unusual characters making up its population, and once again Louise Penny offers some interesting tidbits about the local culture and tradition. As someone living in Quebec, while I can’t confirm there exists such a small village with so many murders, I can at least attest to the accuracy of her other observations.
The Final Verdict
The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny continues in the wonderful stride set by the two previous novels in A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, once again mixing a complex and enthralling murder mystery with excellent character development set in the ever-intriguing village of Three Pines.
If you’ve enjoyed the previous novels, or are looking for a powerful investigative mystery with a classic feel to it, then I strongly recommend you check this novel out.
Louise Penny is a Canadian author who has taken to writing mystery novels where the events unfold in the province of Quebec, following the inspector Armand Gamache.
Some of her better-known novels include Still Life which earned her the 2005 New Blood Dagger Award, A Fatal Grace which was the winner of the 2007 Agatha Award, as well as six additional Agatha Christie awards to this day.