Penny, Louise. The Cruelest Month.

NY: St. Martin, 2007.

Penny writes murder mysteries, and wins prizes doing it; this is the third in her series featuring Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté de Quebec and it got her a third Agatha Award. But her books are also a good deal more than that.

She delves deeply into her characters’ personalities and pasts, their confluences and conflicts, and lays them bare for the reader’s instruction. Gamache, assisted as always by his right hand, Inspector Beauvoir, has two battles to win this time. The first is to work out who killed Madeleine Favreau, breast cancer survivor and bright light to all those around her. The second is to discover who in the upper ranks of the Sûreté is trying to ruin him and his family as revenge for Gamache having brought down a murderously corrupt Superintendent a few years before. As in the first two books, the action takes place in the tiny forest village of Three Pines, just a couple miles north of the U.S. border, and it focuses, moreover, on the old Hadley house, where much evil already has been done and which haunts the residents of the village. (In fact, the one thing that bothers many of Penny’s fans is the concentration of so much violent crime in such a small community — but at least it’s all more or less connected.) In the background, there’s also the story of Clara Morrow’s latest painting. She’s been well thought of as an artist for a long time, but only in a small way; this one is her break-out piece. And Peter, one of the great Canadian artists of his generation, is so jealous of his wife’s talent, he almost can’t stand it. And then there’s old Ruth Zardo, the profane poet (also a great artist, naturally), and her goslings. In fact, many of the supporting players have their own lessons to learn. Penny shows a great understanding of how people work and an equally great talent for explaining them — or allowing them to explain themselves. And Agent Nichol, who is easily one of the most loathsome characters ever delineated, turns out to have quite another side.

Some books you can pick up and put down as you find time between doing other things. But I try not to start one of Penny’s books unless I’m sure I will have a couple days of uninterrupted reading space to devote to it. She always repays that concentration. And, please: Don’t attempt to read this one without having read the first two. In many ways, it’s a continuing story and you’ll have no idea who all these people are.

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Published in: on 7 April 2013 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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