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August 19

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Review: The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

by Ms. Bookish

From the back cover of The Cruellest Month:

It’s Easter, and on a perfect spring day in peaceful Three Pines, someone waits for night to fall. They plan to raise the dead…

When C.I. Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec is called to the village the next morning he faces an unusual crime scene. A séance in an old, abandoned house has gone horrifically wrong and a villager lies still, spirited away – apparently frightened to death.

Gamache soon discovers that in idyllic Three Pines not all is as it should be. Toxic secrets lie buried, and something fetid and festering has clawed its way out. And even Gamache has something to hide. He is shielding his team from a terrible truth. A powerful enemy within the Sûreté has planted a traitor amongst them. Who will betray him? And how far will they go to ensure Gamache’s downfall?

Ms. Bookish’s Quick Take:

Louise Penny’s writing is as strong as ever. The Cruellest Month is a well-written book, and Gamache a likable hero. The main story line, involving the death during the séance, is engrossing; however, a few points detract from the credibility of the novel as a whole. I found that I had to focus on shelving my disbelief before I could really get into the story. All in all, it’s still a good read. I’d recommend that readers new to the series read the first two books in the series before tackling The Cruellest Month: Still Life and A Fatal Grace.

The Full Review of The Cruellest Month:

I first discovered Louise Penny earlier this year when I picked up a copy of Still Life one day while at Costco. It was a wonderful moment when I sat down to read the mystery; my favorite mystery authors include Elizabeth George, P.D. James and Reginald Hill, and Penny’s style of writing is a good fit, although the Three Pines mysteries have a more “cozy” feel to them.

In The Cruellest Month, death once again hits the small village of Three Pines, this time during a séance. The victim appears to have been literally frightened to death. Gamache arrives with his team and the investigation begins.

The who-done-it portion of the novel is well-done, although I found the denouement lacking in comparison to both Still Life and A Fatal Grace. Unfortunately, however, even more emphasis was placed on the lingering Arnot case in The Cruellest Month than in either of the two earlier books. In the earlier books, I found the Arnot subplot a minor annoyance that didn’t get too much in the way of the story being told, but the increased emphasis on this subplot in the third book was very distracting.

Gamache remains a strong protagonist, although he seems superhuman at times – not that this is such a bad thing in a detective story. I tend to like detectives who are very good at what they do. I enjoyed, too, the continued development of the relationship between Gamache and his sidekick, Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir. The Three Pines crew are their delightful selves, although the Three Pines atmosphere and characters aren’t as prominent as they are in the other books. It would have been nice to have had less of the Arnot subplot and more on Three Pines itself.

It is, of course, inevitable that the delightful Three Pines setting has one disadvantage; as a reader, you must willingly put away your disbelief that so many murders can take place in such a small and lovely village. Because I have grown to love Three Pines and its villagers (I would love to move there myself, if only it existed), this isn’t a difficulty – I’d be far more upset if a Gamache mystery wasn’t set in Three Pines.

It’s the Arnot subplot that strains the credibility of the novel as a whole. While in the first two books, I could accept the subplot, given that it played a much smaller role in each story, it was far more difficult to do so in The Cruellest Month, where it was given nearly as much emphasis as the murder mystery itself. I found it extremely difficult to believe that the terrible crimes committed by the infamous police officer Arnot, once exposed to the public, would not have resulted, in the aftermath, in a full-fledged government inquiry. He was, after all, a person in authority, wielding government-granted power.

If you’ve ever read a final decision of such an inquiry, you’ll know that they are often very thorough and detailed, with thousands of people interviewed and giving statements, and the judgment itself sorting through all manner of issues. In the face of such a public inquiry, the attacks on Gamache’s reputation simply could not happen, at least not to the extent they did in the story.

The other plot point that I found upsetting was the role played by Agent Lemieux, mainly because I did not recall any hint of this in the previous novel. It may well be that if I went back and reread A Fatal Grace it would make sense to me, but relying on my memories of that book alone, it felt like this new direction came fully out of the blue.

The good news is that (hopefully) the Arnot case has been put to rest and will not play much of a role in subsequent Gamache/Three Pines adventures. Still, despite these flaws, I would definitely recommend The Cruellest Month; if you like well-written mysteries and quirky characters, it’s one to add to your “to read” pile. Definitely, though, I’d suggest you pick up Still Life and A Fatal Grace first, and let yourself fall in love with Three Pines, both the place and the characters, before you tackle The Cruellest Month.

Ms. Bookish fell in love with book reviewing through her guest reviews here at Today I Read, and currently blogs about and reviews blogs at Ms Bookish Reviews.

Comments on Review: The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

  1. # Review: The Cruellest Month, by Louise Penny - Ms. Bookish wrote on December 3, 2008 at 7:13 pm:

    [...] Click here to read my full review at Today I Read. [...]

  2. # Beth F wrote on December 4, 2008 at 6:41 am:

    I have her first book on my MP3 player. I keep meaning to get to it. I love a good mystery. I’ll have to push the book closer to the top of the TBR pile.

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