INTRODUCTION BY ROBIN AGNEW
As a bookseller, I receive literally hundreds of advanced reading copies every year. I use the scientific method of reading “what calls to me”—so a vast majority of the “pile” goes unread. Several years ago of course I got an advanced reading copy of Still Life, which languished in the pile. The cover didn’t call to me. But then I got a letter from Julia Spencer-Fleming, who uses her powers for good: she sometimes sends around a letter to booksellers highlighting a book she feels passionately about, and Still Life was the topic of one of the first of these letters.
So, loving Julia’s books and trusting her taste, I dug out my (now somewhat battered) copy of Still Life and started reading. Dear Louise Penny fans, you know what happened next—I fell under the spell of Three Pines and Louise’s writing and was so excited to find a new writer I now felt passionately about, that I emailed Louise and asked to interview her via email. She of course agreed, and a correspondence and friendship began.
The Cruelest Month is one of my favorites in the series for many reasons. It felt like Louise’s assurance as writer was growing, and had coalesced in this wonderful novel. I saw Louise recently and I told her I was reviewing this one and she said, “Oh, I loved the concept of the near-enemy in that book.”
So do I. I also told her as I was re-reading it I had forgotten whodunit. She got a twinkle in her eye as she remembered who it was. As I got closer to the end I remembered too, but really great mystery writers have a dual skill: they tell a compelling and interesting story, and then they also tell a mystery with a puzzle and clues for you to solve. It makes the best of them, to me, magical.
Ch. 1-23: The book opens with an Easter Egg hunt, and the rebirth symbolized by Easter becomes a recurring theme throughout the novel, for good or ill. As the children hunt for wooden eggs on the village green, Clara Morrow and Ruth Zardow, the acerbic, cranky, nationally known poet who lives in Three Pines have a revealing exchange.
As Clara points out to Ruth the beauty of spring Ruth says “Nature’s in turmoil. Anything can happen.” At Clara’s protest she also points out “That’s the miracle of rebirth…But some things are better off buried…It’s not over yet. The bears will be back.” Ruth’s sadly practical voice of doom sets up what happens next though Clara’s optimism is also ultimately rewarded.
Meanwhile Gabri, at the local B & B, has decided to spice things up by booking in a psychic, Madame Blavatsky. Like many things to do with Gabri, the Madame Blavatsky part is a bit of an exaggeration; “Madame” turns out to be the more ordinary seeming Jeanne Chauvet, a mousy, non-threatening type. She holds a séance at the B & B on her arrival attended by Madeleine Favreau; a grocer, Msr. Beliveau; Odile, an herbalist; Gilles, a woodworker; and Gabri.
The séance is intruded on by a cursing Ruth Zardo, who has taken under her wing two baby ducks, to everyone’s surprise. Meanwhile, Peter Morrow has gone into Clara’s studio. Both Morrows are artists; Peter is the successful one but what he sees on Clara’s easel disturbs him because it is so good and he is consumed with jealousy.
When the first séance is concluded they agree that there should be another, in the Old Hadley House, a place of wickedness in the past two novels and almost a dead zone as far as the residents of Three Pines are concerned. For the next séance, the original group is joined by Hazel, housemate of Madeleine Favreau, and Hazel’s daughter Sophie. From the start this séance feels more serious; the house is dark; and everyone’s nerves are on edge. As Madame Chauvet calls the dead the lights go out, there’s a shriek and a thud, and a dead body falls to the floor, scared to death by the séance and the house.
Moving back to Montreal we encounter Chief Inspector Gamache and his family, including his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, who must shortly leave for Paris. Gamache’s wife Reine Marie reads of the death in Three Pines and of course it becomes Gamache’s assignment.
In Three Pines, Gamache and his second in command Beauvoir head to the Hadley house to check out the crime scene. The dead woman turns out to be Madeleine Favreau, scared to death, though her system shows high quantities of the diet drug ephedra. Gamache knows she has been murdered. As Gamache reconnects with the villagers who are now his friends, they recount the terrifying death scene. Gamache and Beauvoir then head off to interview Hazel Smyth, Madeleine’s housemate. Meanwhile it becomes clear that Lemieux is working for Inspector Brebeuf back in Montreal as Brebeuf looks for revenge on the outcome of the notorious Arnot case, which divided and shook up the entire Surete.
Hazel describes her life with Madeleine and how much they enjoyed each other. Then she asks if Madeleine was murdered by “the witch” Jeanne Chauvet? Gamache notes that she is full of rage. Meanwhile Beuvoir talks to Hazel’s daughter, Sophie, who appears jealous of the relationship between Hazel and Madeleine. He discovers ephedra in the bathroom.
Gamache and Beauvoir head back to Three Pines where the search for Jeanne Chauvet is ongoing. When Gamache phones home, Reine Marie mentions how Brebeuf has made her feel uneasy of late, and Gamache also speaks with his son Daniel before he heads off to Paris.
Negative stories about Gamache begin to appear in the Montreal press, the first questioning his lifestyle and the fact that he lives so well. His friends in Three Pines try and shield him from the stories. The ephedra rumor begins to make it through the citizens of Three Pines, and it’s clear the information was leaked by a mistake on Lemieux’s part.
Gamache and Beauvoir finally interview Mme. Chauvet. She freely admits to being a Wiccan and said she was drawn to Three Pines by a brochure. She says séances are a method of healing—people connect with the dead in order to move forward.
Beauvoir interviews Odile at her herbal and natural grocery store and he notices the beautiful chairs that Gilles makes. Odile tells Beauvoir that Gilles is in the woods talking to the trees, looking for those that want to be made into furniture. Beauvoir thinks everyone in Three Pines is nuts.
Lemieux interviews the grocer, Msr. Beliveau who reveals that he lost his beloved wife several years back and had been in love with Madeleine. He also recalls Gamache’s four rules of detection: “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I need help. I was wrong.” Lemieux sees no value in these simple rules.
Meanwhile Beauvoir finds Gilles in the woods, where is talking to trees. He tells Beauvoir Madeleine was “full of love” and that she and Hazel seemed very happy living together. He insists that everyone had loved Madeleine, and Beauvoir points out that someone didn’t.
Jeanne Chauvet discovers from talking with Gamache that the Ruth Zardo of Three Pines is the well known poet. Jeanne loves Ruth’s poem about a woman accused of being a witch and says she’s well regarded in Wiccan circles. She also tells Gamache to be careful—”something’s coming.”
Ch. 24-44: In the second half of the book, things begin to amp up, and the damaging newspaper articles about Gamache begin to get worse. Beauvoir encounters Gamache and Chauvet sitting together, and is angry as he thinks she’s a charlatan. She says “I was born with a caul . . . and you were too.” The meaning of this becomes clear later.
Hazel plans Madeleine’s funeral and thinks “Everything had changed. Even her grammar. Suddenly she lived in the past tense. And the singular.” What a profound description of grief. Hazel is busy waiting on Sophie, who has injured her foot.
As the team reviews the latest evidence, it comes out that Madeleine was suffering from breast cancer and that’s the reason she left her husband and moved in with Hazel. It’s also clear there’s another newspaper article about Gamache but he refuses to discuss it or show that it might bother him.
Beauvoir and Nichol go to re-interview Hazel, who is apprehensive when she sees them and focused on Sophie. Gamache, Lacoste and Lemieux go back to the Old Hadley House. Gamache asks them what’s different about the house. Gamache goes off to explore on his own, leaving Lacoste and Lemiux alone. Lacoste can’t wait to escape and takes the first excuse to leave, while Lemieux takes a call from Brebeuf. As Gamache explores the basement he’s discovered by Lemieux, who is holding a gun, which Gamache thinks correctly is no accident.
Then Lacoste demands Beauvoir tell her about the Arnot case which is the ominous sword hanging over Gamache’s head. Beauvoir relates how Arnot and Gamache began their careers at the same time, both rising stars. Gamache took in the oddballs on his team, seeing something worthy in them, while Arnot took the best and the brightest, but was a bully and demanded conformity.
Things came to a head when violence on the native reserved were allowed to go unchecked as Arnot felt it was an internal issue, best handled by the natives. Then Arnot put agents in place to first stir up trouble, and then to kill, and some of the young native men began to disappear. The Surete closed ranks and there was no one for the natives to complain to.
One Cree woman whose son is missing goes to Montreal and sits outside what she thinks is the National Assembly, but it really a hotel. Gamache, with his noticing and listening skills, first notices her then listens and conducts his own investigation. What he finds rips apart the Surete and tests loyalties.
Meanwhile Gamache confronts Lemieux about drawing his gun and Lemieux pretends it was a mistake. Gamache tells him “It’s our secrets that make us sick”. This could really be the theme of the novel as a whole, as it’s the secrets kept hidden and left to fester that cause all the damage.
The latest newspaper article accuses Gamache of passing drugs to his son Daniel, who had a problem in the past. As these attacks hit his family, Gamache begins to plan how to take action.
As Gamache waits to talk with the medical examiner, he encounters Ruth, who displays her two ducklings—one strong and healthy and one weaker and more delicate. Ruth is equally proud and loving of both of them.
The doctor tells Gamache that Madeleine was in fact scared to death, as the ephedra alone would not have killed her, she also would have had to have had a heart condition, which she did. Now it’s up to Gamache to discover who knew about Madeleine’s heart condition. The doctor also tells Gamache that Madeleine’s cancer had returned and that she certainly was aware of it, as she tells him even if a doctor hadn’t told her, cancer patients are very much in touch with their bodies. Gamache also now wonders who would want to kill a dying woman.
Gamache retreats to the bookstore and Myrna, who talks with him about the concept of the “near enemy.” She tells him about emotions that look the same but are in fact opposites, one healthy, the other twisted. They couplings are attachment masquerading as love; pity as compassion; and indifference as equanimity. Myrna explains that it’s hard to tell one from the other, even for the person feeling it.
Back at the Bistro in a spring snowstorm, Gamache and Beauvoir look through Madeleine’s yearbook and find she was involved in everything—she was a cheerleader, starred in the school play, was involved in sports.
Jeanne Chauvet sits with them but apart reflecting on how Three Pines had been an unexpected safe haven for her until she saw Madeleine. She and Gamache do talk and she tells him about how she discovered she was a psychic, and it’s clear her gift has always made her feel like an outsider. Seeing Madeleine had made her so angry she couldn’t decline the second séance.
Beauvoir had called his mother to ask about what it meant to be born with a caul. His head was covered with a membrane when he was born, his mother tells him—a caul—which meant he was either blessed or cursed. His family had ignored him when he said anything odd. Beauvoir wonders if the reason he joined homicide wasn’t more intuitive than he’d previously thought.
At Peter and Clara’s house, Clara is struggling in her studio with her painting after Peter told her the color was slightly off. She’s anticipating a visit from an important Montreal gallery owner and is getting frantic, so Peter suggests a dinner party to take her mind off her work, but he’s really trying to sabotage her.
The next morning Gamache is awoken early by Gabri with the morning paper, which has a photo of Gamache’s married daughter Annie with her married boyfriend. Gamache talks to his wife, Annie, and then calls Brebeuf, who is Annie’s godfather. Of all of them Annie is the least concerned.
At the dinner party Clara is uncomfortable and worried. Talking to Gamache she thinks “She often felt foolish, ill constructed, next to others. Beside Gamache she only ever felt whole.” Gamache asks her what she thought of Madeleine. She says she liked her and mentioned it was lucky she took over leadership of the Anglican Church Women so Hazel wouldn’t have to do it.
She also tells him she was fond of Msr. Beliveau and thinks Odile is a terrible poet. She then worries to herself about her own work.
Lacoste interviews Madeleine’s ex-husband, who tells her living with Madeleine was like “living too close to the sun”, in other words, too close to constant perfection. Lacoste also goes by Madeleine’s high school and picks up her old year books and report cards. A photo Nichol found at Hazel’s house shows a much heavier Sophie eating cake.
Gamache and Beauvoir return to re-interview Hazel and Sophie, asking both if they knew Madeleine’s cancer had returned. Neither seemed to.
When the team meets up again to share what they found, Nichol’s rude outbursts are too much, and Gamache sends her far afield, to Sophie’s college, to ask questions there. The rest of the team is pretty certain Sophie is the killer.
Later, Gamache and Beauvoir hit the road and Gamache reveals more details about the Arnot case. When Gamache presented the evidence against Arnot to the Surete, they let Arnot leave to get his affairs in order. The rest of the Surete hoped he would kill himself but Gamache finds him and two other officers and prevents it. Because Arbot was very popular, some parts of the Surete and the public distrust and dislike Gamache for his part in bringing him to justice.
Finally at the side of the road Beauvoir angily demands that Gamche hold nothing back, and Gamache finally tells all, leaving the two men as bonded as father and son.
A new accusation in the paper points the finger at Gamache, saying he’s a drunk and again linking him with Arnot. Gamache takes himself off to talk to his family and make sure everything is fine with all of them.
At the Morrows’ dinner party, Clara closes the door to her studio to shut her guests out and seems distracted. The dinner guests discuss the cruelty of April—beautiful days and killing frosts or snowfalls that lay waste to the new flowers. There’s also a discussion of the solstice and how every culture has a spring ritual. They talk about how Hazel is willing to give help but unwilling to accept it, and had turned down the dinner invitation to nurse Sophie.
Ruth then relates the story of her two ducks hatching—Rosa, the stronger one, hatched out easily, but the more delicate Lilium had trouble breaking out of the shell and Ruth had helped her. Everyone silently suspects Lilium won’t make it but a feisty Ruth leaves early to tend to her babies.
At the B&B that night, Gamache, Beauvoir and Jeanne Chauvet all have trouble sleeping and meet in the middle of the night over tea. Also up late, Ruth realizes her kindness had killed little Lilium, and in her studio, Clara gets back to work with a clear mind.
The latest reports from the media show that Daniel has been arrested in Paris of suspected drug possession. Gamache leaves to go back to Montreal and set everything straight, possibly to resign.
Meanwhile, as the team plans to arrest Sophie, a broken Hazel appears protesting Sophie’s innocence. She’s given over to Clara’s care for the day. Nichol reports that Sophie is well liked at college and never injured when she’s away from home. Gamache also finds that Odile sells the herb ephedra is derived from, Ma Huang, at her store.
When Gamache arrives at the Surete and meets with all the department heads, including his enemy, Francoeur, he offers his resignation. Gamache returns to Three Pines to reveal the killer, assembling everyone who was at the séance back at the Old Hadley House. He first turns his attention to Sophie. He says she loved Madeleine and then talks about how the near enemy of love is attachment, which is what Sophie felt for Madeleine.
Then he turns to Jeanne Chauvet, who it appears, knew Madeleine in another lifetime and deliberately set out to scare her at the séance. But then Jeanne talks about how she’d realized Three Pines was a magical place full of good energy. But she also reveals she was at high school with Madeleine and Hazel and both hated and envied Madeliene and tried to make herself over for her, so become superficial and pretty.
Gamache then gets up abruptly and leaves to confront Brebeuf, who has come to Three Pines. Gamache had realized that Lemieux was working for Brebeuf and that Brebeuf, not Francour, was the enemy within the Surete as the friendship the two men shared from boyhood had for Brebeuf become a jealous competition. Breboeuf still can’t figure out why Gamache is happier than he is despite his success.
Then Lemieux draws a gun on Gamache and fires; Gamache is saved by Nivhol, who proves herself loyal to him. Gamache reveals that he put the hateable Nichol in place on his team as a distraction, so that he could observe Lemieux. Gabri, Myrna and Jeanne then turn up to rescue Gamache.
They all return to the séance room where the killer is revealed. Gamache recounts how Madeleine was the high school sun; she starred in the school play while Hazel produced it. They were both on the basketball team, but Madeleine was the captain. They were on the debating team, but Mad was the captain. Hazel’s high school motto was “she never got mad”, meaning literally that she never caught up to Madeleine.
Hazel’s near enemy turns out to be pity, which she has substituted as compassion. She makes a life for herself in Three Pines but Madeleine turns up, taking her daughter’s affection; taking over the Anglican Church Women group and finally capturing Msr, Beliveau. And Hazel had known that Mad’s heart was bad, though not how sick she was, when she gave her the ephedra herb. She is arrested.
Gamache misses his friend Brebeuf who has resigned in disgrace from the Surete. He has tea at Agent Nichol’s house in an effort to better understand her. The Gamaches return to Three Pines where a community spring cleaning of the Old Hadley house is going on. And finally Clara reveals her painting, which is so beautiful Peter only feels happy in front of it.
“Gamache loved to see inside the homes of people involved in a case. To look at the choices they made for their most intimate space. The colors, the decorations. The aromas. Were there books? What sort? How did it feel?”
“Our secrets make us sick because they separate us from other people. Keep us alone. Turn us into fearful, angry, bitter people. Turn us against others, and finally against ourselves. A murder almost always begins with a secret. Murder was a secret spread over time.”
One of the things I love most about this book is the unsettling concept of what jealousy can do to you and how destructive it can be. Louise takes it to an extreme to tell her story, but as always with her books, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and makes you think about your own behavior. But the “love” part comes when the wrap up to the story also includes redemption.
Re-birth, a theme carried through the book as much as jealousy is shown to be painful as much as it is necessary, another profound concept. While Louise uses the standard form of the mystery novel—red herrings, clues, even the inspector drawing together his suspects to reveal the killer, a la Poirot—she has such profound concepts she’s illustrating with her story, that again, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
And what stays with you when you are finished? A glimpse of Three Pines through Louise’s words; characters we look forward to seeing in each novel; new characters to think about in this one (for me, especially Hazel and Jeanne); and the wrap up and explication of the Arnot case, hinted at and foreshadowed in the first two books.
- Do you believe a house can be haunted or malelovent? Penny certainly makes the case for the Hadley House being actually evil, and it’s mentioned as the place where all the sorrow from Three Pines goes.
- Gamache’s approach to detection is very intuitive. I love how he “feels” a place or situation and gets to the heart of it. What’s your favorite thing about his technique?
- Gamache is also intuitive about his friend Brebeuf who in fact is working against him, but Gamache isn’t sure. If you were Gamache, do you think you would know your friend had turned against you?
- I love Gabri, he’s one of my favorite characters. In chapter nineteen he’s reflecting on where he’s been clever or cutting instead of kind, and that would be a reason for someone to kill him. Then he thinks what he loves about Three Pines is it’s a place “where kindness trumped cleverness.” Who is your favorite character and why?
- One of the most interesting things about Louise Penny’s books to me are Gamache’s rules: “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I need help. I was wrong.” To me they seem like a useful life guide. Have any of you thought of these rules at challenging times in your own lives?
- What do you like or dislike about Ruth Zardo? I like that she’s such a cranky old lady but she writes such lovely poems, and in this one I love her attachment to the ducks. They become a symbol of the rebirth theme that runs through the book. Did you think the ducks were a corny touch, or did you like them?
- There are many sort of ordinary emotions that fester in this novel but jealousy is the main one and it’s the cause of every conflict in the story, basically. Do you think this is realistic?
- Did you cry when you read about Ruth’s Lilium?
- One of the things I love about Louise’s books is that she always ends on a positive note, even though the things she writes about are pretty dark and profound. She makes the joy profound as well. Do you like or dislike this aspect of her books?
- I was really captured by the portrait of Madeleine in this book and her effect most obviously on Hazel. Have you encountered this kind of perfection from someone in your own life? How did it affect you?
- Who was your favorite character in this book? I came to really like Jeanne Chauvet.
- Finally what are your thoughts on the percolating jealousy of Peter for Clara’s work?