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.
Recap (Chapters 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.”
“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?”
- 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?