Louise Penny: The Cruellest Month

Louise Penny’s books are really about appreciating the many joys of life – friendship, community, good food, beauty – so I think the murder part both keeps them grounded and gives them (obviously) a narrative impetus. Reading this one for the second time I was struck both by the careful structure and the theme – what’s under the surface. It has a very scary opening. Set during Easter in the idyllic Three Pines, there’s still the acerbic Ruth Zardo to point out that it’s a bad idea to leave chocolate eggs outside – and then there’s a very scary seance and separate haunted house scene, which Penny builds to carefully and effectively. I love when mystery writers play with these traditional kind of tropes – in this case a haunted house – and then proceed to build on it, which is just what Penny does.

The story centers around, of course, an outsider to Three Pines, a woman named Jeanne Chauvet who Gabri, the delightful B & B owner, has jostled into agreeing to a seance. She reluctantly agrees, not without practically scaring the pants off the assembled party, and then someone suggests a seance in the local haunted house, the old Hadley place. Scene of various terrors in the previous two books, it’s now boarded up and unused. Jeanne says it’s where all the bad feelings in Three Pines go to live, and it certainly seems that way. When the group assembles in the dark for the second seance, one of them is so scared he or she is literally scared to death. Since Penny closely guards the identity of the victim I won’t give it away here, you’ll have to read the book to find out who it is. Suffice it to say that of course it’s enough to call in Armand Gamache and his big city team to figure out what has happened.

But since this is a book about undercurrents, it’s also about the old – mentioned in the first two books – Arnot case, something that has dogged Gamache for years and now seems to be coming back to bite him with a vengeance. As he’s pulled in two directions (really three as he feels there’s a traitor on his team) and as it begins to affect his own family, he of course is figuring out a way to resolve all three problems. Three books in, I already trust him enough to know he’ll be able to solve everything set before him.

As Gamache delves into the Three Pines case he gets more and more into the personal lives of many of the residents, some of whom have their own “undercurrents” or breaches of trust. As a clue Penny refers to Matthew 10:36, but like the identity of the victim she doesn’t give away the meaning of the passage – though it applies across the board – until later in the story. (Of course I looked it up, and you can too. It’s a clue!). This is ultimately a story about belief, trust, betrayal and friendship. As with all Penny novels, this one is stuffed full of delightful things, rich ideas, wonderful characters, and it’s almost too much bounty to take in at one reading. The theme of the Easter season – rebirth- is effectively used at the very end of the book, giving Penny, with a dual resolution in hand, almost a blank canvas to start from with the next book. I can’t wait to see what it’s about.