Louise Penny's The Cruellest Month

Louise Penny is no stranger to literary awards. Her first novel was published in 2005, and in an amazingly short time, she garnered a Dagger, two Anthony, and four Agatha awards. Quill & Quire writer Joel Yanofsky wrote that in 1996, Penny “walked away from an 18-year career as a CBC journalist and radio host, convinced she was going ‘to write the best book ever.’ Five years later, she had nothing to show for her time.” But once she gave up the idea of writing historical novels and decided to write mysteries, she found her niche.

With the approach of the Easter season, mystery novel enthusiasts can turn to Penny’s The Cruellest Month. It opens on Good Friday in the charming Quebec village of Three Pines. Holding a séance in an old Gothic-like house seems like an exciting idea to the villagers. Yet once the séance begins, footsteps are heard, and one of the villagers literally dies of fright. “Madeleine Favreau,” Clara Morrow believes, “had been scared to death. Killed by the old Hadley house” (63). Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called in to investigate.

If you haven’t read one of Penny’s Three Pines mysteries, you are in for a real treat. The village is a place that will capture your imagination. As Gamache observes, it
lay nestled in its little valley. Wood smoke wafted from the stone chimneys, and maples and cherry and apple trees were in bud if not quite in bloom. . . . Villagers walked across the green with canvas bags full of baguettes and other produce. . . Locally made cheeses and pates, farm fresh eggs and rich aromatic coffee beans all from the shops. (60)
Once you meet the Three Pines’ characters, you will not forget them. Marilyn Stasio maintains that “if there’s a secret to Penny’s technique, it’s to be found in Clara’s realistic portraits of local residents, which reveal their true meaning only after close study.” Characters are not what they initially appear to be.”

Penny’s 14-year battle with alcoholism informs all her writing, giving her insight into the human psyche. She admits, “My characters can’t feel anything I haven’t felt. I know about jealousy, bitterness, self-hatred, anger; I own all that.”

The novel explores the Easter-related themes of rebirth, second chances, resurrection from the dead, and renewal – all themes with which Penny is deeply familiar. She acknowledges, “The great blessing in my life is that I know that goodness exists. But I know, too, that the happiest people in the world have been through hell and come out the other end.” The Cruellest Month is written by someone who has walked the walk.

It is also the 2008 winner of the Agatha Award, a prize awarded to a mystery novel that uses Agatha Christie’s methods. The closed world of Three Pines is reminiscent of Christie’s settings, yet this novel surpasses the traditions of its Golden-Age precursors. Penny has created characters that are more complex, nuanced, and memorable than that of her predecessor – she has given depth to the cozy. Readers come away from her novels with deeper insight into the human condition.

In my post on The Murder Stone, I wrote that, Penny’s novel “has it all: intriguing plot, psychologically convincing characters, mesmerizing surroundings, thought-provoking analysis, and evocative language.” The Cruellest Month also features the idyllic setting and charming village characters of Three Pines. You will not want to miss this novel.

Penny, Louise. The Cruellest Month. London: Headline, 2007.