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Bookends: Gamache investigates the death of a wonderful victim June 4, 2013

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Bookends: Gamache investigates the death of a wonderful victim

Cruellest Month

By Dan Davidson

February 13, 2013

 

The Cruellest Month

By Louise Penny

Headline Publishing Group

372 pages

$10.99

Three Pines, Quebec, seems like such a quiet, idyllic little village. The major characters that we have come to know include a nationally famous poet, another woman who would like to be a poet, a married couple who are artists, a gay couple who run a B&B/Inn and a smattering of other people who turn up from time to time.

It’s also a lethal place, for people seem to die there in all seasons of the year. In this, the third of Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries, we arrive in town for a third season of murder.

It is April, T.S. Elliot’s “cruellest month” according to “The Wasteland” and the village is celebrating Easter Weekend, though sometimes the passage of time in Three Pines is a little obscure.

“Time eddied and swirled and sometimes bumped into it, but never stayed long and never made much of an impression.”

Much like Agatha Christie (and she has won the Christie Award a number of times now) Penny spends a lot of time introducing the place and the people that we need to know in order to make sense of what follows. We are eight chapters into the story before the police are even mentioned.

Readers of the two earlier books will know of the Hadley house, the scene of the murderous climax of an earlier novel and a place full of haunting menace for both the residents of the town and the Sûreté du Quebec homicide team that will eventually be dispatched from Montreal to deal with the latest strange death.

It was a dreadful place to hold a séance, and when one member of the circle drops dead – apparently of fright – after the visiting wiccan practitioner (everyone calls her a witch) has set the stage for a spiritual visitation, it seems at first that the explanation for this particular death might be quite routine, The woman, Madeleine, was already dying of cancer, though she hadn’t told anyone and it wasn’t obvious yet. In addition, her heart had been weakened by the treatments used to drive away the first bout of the disease.

Madeleine dies on page 55 and we turn the page to meet Gamache in a moment of family intimacy. Four pages later he is informed of his next case, and begins to assemble his team. What he does not know at the point is that his powerful enemies have begun to assemble his ruin, and that his own actions of some year earlier, when he cleaned up a corrupt vigilante unit in the upper echelons of the force, will haunt him throughout the case at hand.

There are two tracks to this story, for though we have been aware of the Arnot Scandal over the course of the series, it is only here that we learn exactly what happened. Gamache has to explain it to his chief lieutenant, Beauvoir, in order to make his game plan clear as both cases heat up.

The assault on Gamache, carried out by means of a well orchestrated release of ambiguous information to the lower class Montreal tabloids is, in many ways, more compelling than the murder at hand, but Penny manages to hold our  interest in the lesser of the two mysteries and lay down enough red herrings in both cases to keep us guessing.

In particular, she manages to cast a lot of doubt on just who might have killed the luminous Madeleine, for she is one of those natural bright lights that everyone loves, and who always seems to excel in relationships without really trying. Her ex-husband even goes so far as to suggest that he drove her out of the marriage because he was being blinded by her light, something for which he does not blame her one bit.

Who would kill such a person? That’s the mystery here.

As for Gamache’s problems within the Sûreté, these are not a mystery to us. We know exactly who is plotting against him and the only mystery is that the otherwise canny chief inspector seems unaware of just who that is.

Penny’s website reveals that Still Life, the first of the Gamache novels, has been made into a television movie for the CBC, and will star British actor Nathaniel Parker, who will be known to fans of BBC mysteries for his starring role as Inspector Thomas Lynley, the character created in the mystery series by Elizabeth George.

The Penny books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages all over the world now, though it was years before they were actually released in French in Quebec. Her website, blog and Facebook page contain some interesting anecdotes about her writing life, and the CBC website contains a fine interview that she die with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter about a year ago.

-30-

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