The Cruelest Month, Part 1


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.”

Favorite Quote

“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?”

Discussion Questions

1. 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.

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

Robin AgnewRobin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she and her husband Jamie have sold books together for 21 years. She is a reviewer for Mystery Scene and you can read her reviews on Facebook, Twitter and on the Aunt Agatha's website. She and her husband and their bookstore were recently honored by the Mystery Writers of America with the Raven Award.

Discussion on “The Cruelest Month, Part 1

  1. Jane F. says:

    Thank you, Robin, for your introduction into The Cruelest Month. Like you, I find the book is so interesting on the way it develops the characters that I also (temporarily) forgot about “whodunnit”.

    Now, on to that first question:
    . –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.–

    Well, actually I believe the home we now live in has a few ghosts connected to it. One, I think is the man who lived here and whose death was the reason for his widow selling the home. A couple of other, smaller ghosts, are the souls of several of our dogs. All of these are benevolent and so do not cause any fear, but just recognition of a life now in a familiar form.

    As for houses that have a malevolent spirit, I do think such things exist. If memory serves me correctly, there are several novels based on “hauntings” or negative spirits that caused a family to move from a home. Amityville Horror comes to mind as a title, but I can’t recall any of the particulars at the moment.

    As for the Hadley House, I think we see that in this book at least some of the villagers are looking askance at it because of the actions of some of the people who lived in it. Clara in particular is afraid of the house. Penny writes: “That house had haunted her ever since she’d arrived in Three Pines, a young wife to Peter, more than twenty years ago. It had haunted her and almost killed her.” Then Clara goes on to tell Jeanne Chauvet about the house: ‘There’s been a murder there, and a kidnapping. And attempted murder. And murderers have lived there’ (p. 27 Paperback).

    Now there are a couple of interesting things about that passage that I want to discuss. Clara feels that the house had almost killed her, but actually, Ben is the one who kidnapped her and tried to kill her. It seems a bit unfair to me that the house in this case is getting the blame for the actions of someone the Morrows had considered a friend. I also find it intriguing that in her statement about the house, Clara doesn’t even indicate that SHE was the victim of the kidnapping and the person that someone tried to kill(again note she does not even mention Ben as the person who lived in the house, who both kidnapped her and tried to kill her, and on top of that, was going to make Peter the fall guy for his, Ben’s actions!) Ben seems to get a free ride here while the house takes the brunt of the blame. This seems particularly ironic to me considering that Clara had believed Ben when he told her there were snakes in the basement. Even after she’d been rescued, and light revealed that what she had thought were snakes were really parts of hoses, she didn’t seem to realize how malevolent BEN was, not the house!
    Of course, readers of A Fatal Grace will recognize that besides Ben, the other murderers who had lived there were CC de Poitier and her daughter Crie. Since the murders committed by both of those females took place away from the Hadley House, only one murder really took place there, and that was Ben’s murder of his mother, Timmer. It’s not as though Three Pines suddenly found itself having to fear a serial killer! I don’t believe that either CC or Crie would have killed anyone else, although of course that is a moot point. Ben is a different story. We see that he killed Jane Neal because he feared that she had figured out that his alibi was questionable, and then he was willing to kill Clara when he suspected she had figured out that he was the one who had changed the face on Jane Neal’s painting, Fair Day, and thus must also be her killer. Up to that point, I don’t know that the police had even thought about Timmer Hadley’s death being suspect. I must add, though, that Timmer was dying of Cancer, and what Ben did was give her an extra dose of Morphine–what in some other cases would have been deemed a “mercy killing.” It certainly was not violent, and I don’t think that action in and of itself would have been enough to make Timmer come back to haunt her son/and or the house. All of the other murders took place off site, so as far as negative energies residing in the house is concerned, I do not see how that would be enough for the house to truly be full of malevolent spirits.

    • Robin Agnew says:

      Jane, What a wonderfully considered reply! I actually agree with you that houses themselves aren’t haunted, though perhaps they are inhabited by the bad things that happened inside them. The Hadley house seems to have more than its share of unhappiness and death. Maybe the idea is that those things are somehow “drawn” to the house. But I think in general your point relates to Louise’s use of almost magical realism – while things sometimes appear to be supernatural in origin in her novels, they always have a root cause in reality. It’s the anxieties of the people involved that make what happens much more terrible. Look at the difference in reaction to the house between Lacoste, gifted with an imagination, and Lemieux, not gifted with an imagination and unafraid to be there.

      • Jane F. says:

        I think your post is spot on. It’s the anxieties of the people in the village that lead them to project evil onto the Hadley House.
        Jeanne discusses this with them when they are trying to figure out what went wrong with the first seance. As it turns out, they held it in a place that was “too happy,” and that she had thought there were”no mean spirits around.” After Monsieur Beliveau tells her abouty the Hadley House, and that the house is “evil” because “bad things happen there,” and Clara adds her bit about the murderers who had lived there, Ms. Chauvet tells them it is about balance. She tells them she feels peace in the village,” ‘From the time I arrived I felt great kindness here. . . this is an old village, with an old soul… The village has known loss, people killed before their time, accidents, war, disease.Three Pines isn’t immune to any of that. But you seem to accept it as part of life and not hang onto the bitterness. Those murders you speak of, did you know the people?’
        Everyone nodded. ‘ And yet you don’t seem bitter or bound by that horrible experience. Just the opposite. You seem happy and peaceful. Do you know why?’
        They stared into the fire, into their drinks, at the floor. How do you explain happiness? Contentment?
        ‘We let it go,’ Myrna said finally’ “(p. 28 paperback ed.).
        I think this is one of the best descriptions of the villagers and what kind of people live in Three Pines. We will see that ability to let go be tested time and again, in this book and future books, but this is one thing that remains true of the people in Three Pines.

        After Myrna’s response, Jeanne goes on to tell them that the energy from their anger and fear goes to the Hadley House:
        ” Three Pines is a happy place because you let your sorrow go. But it doesn’t go far. Just up the hill. . . To the old Hadley House”(p. 29 paperback ed.).
        That’s a lot to put on an individual house, isn’t it? But it sure sets up the Hadley House as a proper place to hold a seance! Fasten your seatbelts!

      • Linda Maday says:

        Just an odd notion that popped into my head concerning what you said about Lemieux. He is quite intent on destroying Gamache. Is it a case of evil being quite comfortable in the old house?

    • KB says:

      Houses feel different. Some, occupied or not, just feel like home and family. It might be the quality of light inside them or the warmth of woodwork. And a similar house can feel cold and unwelcoming. It seems to me that the Hadley house was not a welcoming house to begin with. It was easier to blame the house (rather than Ben, who was supposedly a friend) for the dis-ease Clara felt around him and Timmer. (I believe that some of the uneasiness would arise from the dissonance between what Ben said about his mother and the reality of who she was.) It is still easier to blame the house than to accept the depth of betrayal of a friend. The house is separate, apart from the village. It is easy for the villagers to dismiss all that is evil and assin it to that house. With nobody to care for it, a negative history, and its innate coldness, it is not surprising that it attracted CC. But, is it evil? I don’t think so. I like Louise’s description in one of her books – it was a sigh. It needs someone to “heal” it and let in the light.

    • Meg R says:

      Hi, Jane F.! Happy to see you starting this one! Know what? First time I read this, I was reading the series sequentially – back-to-back. As many others have stated, I was absorbed by plot and focused on what was happening with Armand, Ruth, Clara, Jean-Guy, Gabri & Olllie, Myrna, Lacoste and the others and how their lives were interwoven and the direct or indirect effects of that Arnot business. Like most of us, so much more becomes meaningful or even noticed on the second reads.

      I finished reading Chapter 25 last night and discovered that I was a little perturbed with our author in this one – especially in the first third of the book. Think it was Clara who said something about people liking to scare themselves by watching horror movies. I just had the sensation that hysteria was affecting almost everyone in the book over the Hadley House – kind of like that perpetrated during the Salem witch trials — or teenage screams & shrieks from a Freddy Kruger or slice & dice horror flick! There were so many references to that house killing people – even from characters that we know who tend to be a little more level headed! Wanted to call out – “Where’s the ____ that we’ve come to know in the first two books?’

      Jane’s right! That house didn’t “kill” anyone. Whackadoodle Ben Hadley killed his mother there, and Jane Neal in the woods, and kidnapped & probably was planning to kill Clara there in that basement. Two other ‘damaged children”, CC and her daughter Crie also lived there and murdered their mothers – but not on that location. Almost want to go back and come up with another list of every time anyone said something about the murderous nature of that house! Found myself penciling in “NOT” in the margins frequently when characters made this claim. It just seemed very illogical to me that Gamache, Jean-Guy, Clara, Myrna, Lacoste and even our two newbies – Nichol & Lemieux – seemed to make that characterization about the building. Remember pencil marking, “NO! Ben did that! ” or “No! CC did that.” There is a greater issue in this book for concern other than the assumed ‘evilness’ of that building.’ Real thread of harm is oozing & creeping out of another structure in Montreal!

      Just found all of that hysteria about the ‘fear inducing’ Hadley house to be distracting. Seance & its consequences could still have effectively occurred without all that frenzy about an evil site. Really wasn’t sure why that was included at all.

      • Jane F. says:

        Meg R., I’m glad you agree with me about the Hadley House being unfairly blamed for so much of the bad things that have happened in Three Pines. However, I think the reason Penny “allowed” the villagers to get all hysterical about the Hadley House is that in effect, the house, and the outcomes of the seances held there, serve as a RED HERRING. A tried and true plot device of many a mystery writer, including the grand dame herself, Agatha Christie. By making the readers look at the house and not at who the probable murderer of Madeline was, she keeps us from guessing who that person is and deciding we don’t need to read any further, ’cause we have solved the mystery!

        • Meg R says:

          Yes, I get ‘red herring’ employment, but there are so many others in this story that I felt that Ms. Penny was really asking us to stretch our beliefs well beyond the believable when characters who have managed to keep their heads & think straight in the two prior books don’t at the beginning third of this one. For instance, Gamache has been inside of that house in “A Fatal Grace” — after falling down the cellar steps and being injured in “A Still Life.” He entered it tentatively at first when he went to speak with Richard Lyon and Crie. He noticed that it was just a tired old house that hadn’t been updated. He went back two or more times after that to speak with Lyon and to check on Crie. Absolutely no reluctance on Armand’s part about entering it. Then in this book, we have both Armand and Jean-Guy doing internal tremors about the horrors of this house, Their past actions and behaviors didn’t merit recent reactions. Just felt like they were added to increase hysterical reactions to the Hadley house. L. Penny’s reading of poem that Jeanne C. recites about a ‘witch’ tends to reinforce that ‘witch-hunt’ mentality. I’m just saying that – for me- that part of this novel just didn’t ring true. That’s all. Have made a couple of interesting discoveries though, Have to unpack my book as they’re inserted in it. (Wonderful weekend seeing smiling new great-nephew who’s just learned to chirp & crawl!)

      • Linda Maday says:

        As a child I lived with my family near a trailer home where a young father murdere his wife and then committed suicide. The wife’s family had the trailer cleaned and then took it several states away and sold it. My father’s job caused us to have to move fairly often and over the course of several years we came across the trailer several times. Each time in a trailer sales lot. I remember my father talking to one trailer sales manager who told him that the trailer appeared to have been sold many times. Once people purchased the trailer they would only keep it a short while, then resell it because they felt uncomfortable. Was it haunted? I don’t think so, but I do think that awful feelings can remain where horrible deeds have happened.

        There’s also an important message here that I think is being overlooked. Some of the ones most frightened have a legitimate reason for being fearful of the house.

        Clara (and Peter) had been misled by Ben into believing there were snakes in the basement. Then Ben dragged Clara there to attempt murder. There in a dark eerie basement Clara was the target of a murderer, Gamache was almost killed in the same dark basement, as was Peter. When the lights came on, Clara was surprised that the basement was actually clean, no snakes. She, and others, held on to the horrible feelings from that awful incident. It wouldn’t be uncommon or mystical in any way to be afraid of the place where you almost died. It’s very difficult to let go of the feelings of fear and vulnerability.

        While some may have been overreacting, perhaps being fearful because they over sympathized with the real victims, others (Clara and ultimately Gamache) seemed to be trying to face and overcome their residual fears.

        It did make for a great red herring. Effective because as we all know, just because people say you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t someone really out to get you.

      • Wayne P. Olson says:

        The house didn’t kill anyone, but LP seems to like to emulate a different type of mystery novel in each book, i.e., “locked room” mystery, stately home mystery, etc. This seems to be the one that has a “scary house” theme, among other things.

  2. Julie says:

    1. I really don’t think a house can be evil in and of itself, but enough evil acts have been done in the Hadley House that people can be forgiven for thinking so. I’m a very slow reader, so am just barely “keeping up” with the reading. I’ve just read about “the latest” evil act in the house – Gamache’s encounter with Lemieux (may be ‘just’ beyond chapter 23). The last number of people who’ve lived there have certainly had their share of evil among them, and now, of course, the whole town thinks of the house that way. But I do think it’s more a “remembering” of what’s happened than actual evil that the house embodies. Our imaginations are very powerful things. If we think there are snakes on the floor of the basement, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that a garden hose has just actually slithered past your leg and is about to strike!

    2. I think my very favorite thing about Gamache is how well and carefully he listens. He tries to teach his team that “if you’re talking, you’re not learning anything”. Some learn well – others, not so much!

    3. It’s so hard to see Gamache being betrayed by his boyhood friend. But he is a “give the benefit of the doubt” kind of person for everyone he meets, so certainly, a life-long friend would be trusted until proven otherwise. I ache for him when I see this happening. He’s such a good person and HOW can anyone side with Arnot? And yet – this is a very Canadian thing – there are examples of such monstrous behavior of whites toward natives throughout the country’s history, and some not so very long ago. It’s believable to me that it happened, and that it was condoned by some. Very believable, I’m afraid. This is the real evil I feel throughout the series, and we are really getting to it now. So hard to sit and read and not scream at Gamache to look out!

    4. Beauvoir is still my favorite character – his demons are still to come out, but they will… He loves Gamache so much, but seems almost powerless against the thing he keeps in a cage locked deep in his heart. Nichol is another favorite – so complex and my heart breaks for her as she tries – she really DOES try.

    5. Love these rules and WISH I’d known them much earlier in my life. As it is, I probably embody “I’m sorry”, hahaha. “I don’t know” is the one I have the most trouble with. In my family, the only sin there was, was to be wrong or admit you didn’t know. Kind of hard for a 10-year-old to live up to…

    6. While Ruth was slow to warm for me – I got that she was crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, but that really starts to come home for me with the ducks in this book. As we see this tale unfold, my heart opens, flowers, shuts and breaks for her through it all… I know it’s only a little side-note to the stories, yet it’s very telling. Without the ducks, I don’t think I’d like Ruth half so well, though I do love her poetry.

    One of the things I’ve been doing with this book is highlighting things that I think are important to a theme or illustrate something that strikes me, and of course, my Kindle copy is now almost all yellow! There aren’t many words that don’t fit one or both of those criteria in a Louise Penny book. I’m looking forward to the last half of the book (I’ve forgotten whodunnit, too – and really, it’s not the most important part of the books for me, hahaha).

    • Meg R says:

      Julie, Your response to Q#2 caused one of my old grannies to whisper in my ear! She always told us that “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you should use them (your ears) twice as much! A friend printed this on a poster for me that hung in my classroom for many years. Even got to the point where my kids would extend an arm & aim at it when one of us (yes, me included!) wasn’t really listening to what the other was saying! But, do you remember the fifth and biblical ‘lesson’ Gamache added at the end of the list that both he and Brebeuf learned also from their early supervisor? It also resonates in this book!

      • Hope says:

        Matthew 10:36: “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” It comes up in STILL LIFE and recurs as a major theme (along with the very different quote, “Surprised by Joy,” which is ultimately engraved on Jane Neal’s headstone) throughout the series.

      • Julie says:

        Meg, I wish I had learned the “listening” lesson much earlier. Good for you for allowing your students to include you in the need to really listen – you must be a very good teacher.

        Yes, I do remember the “biblical” lesson, too. Gamache really needs to keep that in mind for the rest of the series!

        • Beverly Brazier says:

          Not plot related at all by why do you put the word Biblical in quotation marks when referring the the Matthew quote?

    • KB says:

      What I love about Gamache is his ability to be still and to listen without judgment. This is contrasted with Beauvoir, who can listen, but with his own running commentary, or the younger agents (Lemieux, Nichol) whose insecurity (or other issues) make them push to be seen and heard when they ought to be listening and thinking.

      • Linda Maday says:

        I believe Gamache does judge. Actually, I believe he listens, hears, and then applies GOOD judgement.

        Notice, he wasn’t oblivious to the rudeness of his “friend” he just waited to learn the cause instead of overreacting or acting too quickly.

        • Hope says:

          I totally agree, Linda–Gamache does judge, but wisely, and not before listening and observing. And while even his judgment is not always perfect, he also has the wisdom to say, “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” when appropriate.

          • KB says:

            Perhaps a poor word choice…. maybe better would have been “listen without being judgmental”. Gamache listens and uses discernment and logic and comes to good conclusions, but he does not dismiss, vilify, or minimize. There is no “those crazy Anglais” etc. just because people are different. Except sometimes :) .

  3. Robin Agnew says:

    I love Beauvoir too and you could argue that his character changes and evolves the most over the course of the books. Also I love the relationship he shares with Gamache and later with Annie.

    • Jane F. says:

      I agree, Robin. I’ve often thought in reading these books that Beauvoir is like an errant teenaged son that Gamache rescued and now is grooming to eventually take his place.

  4. Barbara H. Johnson says:

    I’ll take question # 4 first. After re-reading Still Life and starting A Fatal Grace, I suddenly thought how dense of me. Ruth’s “beer run” each afternoon as she sat on the bench in the Square. I would very much like to sit beside her and blend my grief with that of hers. (Thank God, Veternarians who have tended and known the stories of my rescues have been the ones to ease my dear dogs from this life.) I would like to think that she would be OK with my presence and would allow me to be her friend. Everyone does not understand the depth of feelings we have for our beloved animal companions. Now the precious little duckings have arrived. I have read the series so I know the rest of their story. The ducks were not a corny touch. Much about a person’s character is revealed in their love for the animals that have a close relationship with them. I feel the warmth of Petey’s body as he sleeps in my lap while I am typing this.

    • Jane F. says:

      Barbara, I also like the idea of sitting with Ruth on her bench. Do you know, I think this is the first time in fiction that we see a person perform an act of loyalty usually only found in canines? I’m writing, of course, of Ruth’s habitual visit to the bench at 5:00 because that is the time she helped Daisy go out of this world. If any place should be sacred in Three Pines, I think it is that bench.
      Of course, Louise Penny does not tell us, the readers, immediately about WHY Ruth is going to her bench. It even makes her look rude and (at least in Beauvoir’s view) a bit nutty. Thus we see her through the prism of Lemieux at first, and not from the other villagers. When I read that part about why it was called a Beer Run, and realized that in effect, Ruth is visiting Daisy’s grave every day at the same time, I almost cried.
      Also, I did watch that video of Louise Penny, where she is discussing The Cruelest Month, and she mentioned that for most people, they keep their negative selves secret and present their best side to the public. Ruth is the opposite. She shows her nasty side to the world and keeps hidden(or tries to– I think about the time when Gamache was visiting her in her home, questioning her, and she confessed that she was about to be “decent”– like that was an awful thing!)her good side. I think the fact that Ruth does have a soft, or good side, but that she doesn’t want it to be common knowledge makes the villagers have more respect for her. To them, she is much more than just a cranky old lady. To me, too. What an interesting character she is!

    • Robin Agnew says:

      I love Ruth as well and I loved the ducks. I ALWAYS cry when I read about Lilium’s death. I have a dear customer at our store who thinks she **is** Ruth Zardo (and in truth, there are similarities) – curiously or not, this woman works with rescued birds of prey. She actually meditates with some of them. I love the dichotomy in Ruth, and in this customer (also a friend).

    • KB says:

      I love Ruth. Not that she would be easy to live with on an ongoing basis! And, while she doesn’t change through the series, she is a walking contradiction, which is revealed in many ways throughout.
      Myrna and Clara feel like my friends. They are goofy, sensitive, and insightful and understand the healing power of tea, or chocolate, or a beer.
      And I wish we could have had more of Madeleine (like with Jane in Still Life).

    • Linda Maday says:

      I love Ruth. From the very start.

      Ruth and her poetry and her dog, and her ducks. Little precious pearls left in each book by a wonderful author.

      Gamache is wonderful. Beauvoir is heartbreaking. They are the greatness of these books, but Ruth and her ducks are the heart.

      • Ruth says:

        And Louise still has more room to explore Ruth. In re-reading ‘Still Life’ I was surprised to find that Ruth was once married. Her maiden name and married names are referred to in Jane’s will.

        • Linda Maday says:

          I also liked that she has hidden treasures in her basement, sorta like the hidden treasures in her heart.

  5. Barbara H. Johnson says:

    Oh, Petey is my dog.

  6. Jane F. says:

    Robin, that is funny, that you know someone who apparently is “channeling” Ruth Zardo. I know a lot of us in the discussion group really like Ruth, but I have to say, if I were going to claim to be like someone in a book, Ruth Zardo would not be my first choice! However, I must admit she does touch my heart with the ducks, and I bet that’s one reason your friend feels so aligned with her.
    KB, I also wish we could have gotten to know Madeleine AND Jane better.

    Now on to a couple of questions about Gamache:

    2. 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?
    Have to say, that as soon as I read this question, I thought about Lord Peter Wimsey, and I think it was in the book Clouds of Witness where his mother, the Dowager Duchess, makes a remark to the effect that when men use intuition, they are using “mother-wit”. That’s one of the reasons I, and I would venture to say, many of Penny’s readers can identify with Gamache. It isn’t all “Just the facts, M’aam” with him, but he has learned to listen to his instincts.

    3. 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?
    Note that it isn’t that Gamache doesn’t have suspicions of Brebeuf, but that he “isn’t sure.” It’s kind of like he sees the signs that there’s something off about Brebeuf, but this is his childhood friend.I think here Gamache is having problems with deciding which is more important–the present(Brebeuf acting funny) versus the past(Brebeuf his childhood friend who comforted him when his parents died, and he feels helped save his life). Therefore, he’s reluctant to pass judgment without giving Brebeuf enough rope to hang himself with.
    As for whether I would be able to tell if one of my friends had turned against me, I think I would. Good friends support each other, even when they may have something critical to say. Say for example, I had a friend whom I had known for decades, and we shared common interests and outlooks on life, and suddenly I felt whenever I was around my friend there was an air of discontent, and she seemed to be saying negative things about me and my judgment, not just once, but a number of times, I think I would know our friendship was in trouble, if not already dead.

    • Robin Agnew says:

      Oh, Jane, your comment about Peter Wimsey reminds me of another favorite detective of mine, Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn, who has a close relationship with his mother and often asks her for advice. He is also intuitive. Gamache seems like an updated version of those wonderful characters – he’s contemporary but he also draws on the past. He would be at home with Wimsey and Alleyn.

      • Jane . says:

        Exactly, Robin!
        Since Gamache was deprived of his parents at an early age, it’s difficult to see how he could belong to the same club as Wimsey and Alleyn, except, one might hypothesize, through an inherited sense of “mother-wit.” In so many ways, Gamache seems to be comfortable with his intuitive, or dare I say, “feminine” side. I bet that THAT is one reason so many of the men in higher positions at the Surete are uncomfortable being around Gamache. There’s nothing about his appearance that would suggest to them the effeminate, but his refusal to play the “old boys” game has them baffled and upset.

  7. Meg R says:


    There were a few things that caught my attention early in this book – and most of them had to do with names that either sounded familiar for some reason or other – or caught my attention. So, I went ‘googling”!

    MADAME BLAVATSKY: Think it’s Gabri who initially announces that the psychic Madame Blavatsky would be appearing/ performing & staying at the B & B. There was a real Madame B! Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) was Russian, and studied extensively Eastern religions. She sought the commonalities of those and western faiths. She was one of the founders of the Theosophy Society in the U.S. It’s teachings about God and the world were based on mystical insights traced back to those originated in the ancient world.

    SARAH BINKS: For some reason this name tickled my funny bone. Think it was Ruth who ‘complimented” Odile’s poetry as being of the Sarah Binks style. Had to look this one up. Sarah Binks is a fictional character in a novel by University of Manitoba prof, Paul Herbert called “Sarah Binks.” In it, he “satirizes the literary pretensions of both critic and poet by presenting a poet and critic (the author) whose productions are awash with misreadings and sentimental claptrap.” It was originally published in 1947.

    ODILE: This is the name of the black swan in the ballet “Swan Lake”. There was also a St. Odile of Alsace (alternate spellings – Odilia or Ottila). She was the patron saint of Alsace and the patron saint of good eyesight. Sounds like maybe our author is doing a little ‘Sarah Binksing here too! :~}

    JEANNE CHAUVET: Jeanne’s surname also sounded very familiar & when I looked it up, remembered why! Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave is in the Ardeche department of southern France and it contains some of the earliest known cave paintings. There seems (to me) to be something really mystical about some of those early, early drawings! Good choice for Jeanne’s name too!

    • Barbara H. Johnson says:

      Isn’t “googling” names, places and events mentioned in a novel FUN. I have learned so much history this way. I keep notes as I read so I can google them later. One site leads to another until I am far afield of where I started and with many additional notes to return to later. Nice to meet another curious mind.

    • Bronwen says:

      My daughter, a first time reader of the series and who is now reading the books with me so we can have the fun of discussing them each morning, is a fluent French speaker and she is also intrigued by the choice of names. She has updated me about their literal meanings and how much each person’s name underpins their character or their presence in the plot. I didn’t know any of this in my first two reads of the series and it’s so much fun to get her little asides and insights regarding the names. What clever choices.

      • Barb says:

        Bronwen, I would dearly love to read your daughter’s comments on the names!

        “John-Boy Beautiful Vision?”
        “Pretty-Boy John?”

  8. Linda Maday says:

    Ruth’s duck introduce a theme that will reach fruition in later books — the life lesson that baby ducks need to struggle during the hatching in order to have the strength to live full healthy lives.

    Many of the struggles in these early books leads to more complete individuals in future books.

    Sometimes we can love someone too much, stepping in to alleviate life’s trials before they have had the opportunity to learn and to grow.

    Or, we ourselves can give up before we have gone through the trial to find the treasure at the end of the refiners fire.

    • Meg R says:

      Linda, in this post you reminded me of something I forgot to mention in our first discussion. The very first time that we met Clara Morrow and her appearance was described – I immediately made a connection to Ruth in later books. Clara was her messy self with crumb in her hair and on her clothing, but a bit of her tresses was held back by a duck barrette! That image of a middle-aged woman with a kid’s plastic duck clip in her hair made me smile then and reminded me of Ruth’s ducks to come!

    • Karen Gast says:

      So, so right!

  9. Ruth says:

    There’s one small inconsistency introduced in this book when we learn that Gamache’s parents died when he was a child. In Still Life, Gamache is reflecting on how people react to death and remembers that his mother’s reaction to finding that her husband has passed away peacefully during the night next to her in bed, is to call and make a hair salon appointment.

    I prefer listening to these books and I would think for days about the themes and characters. I do think that places feel evil because of the evil that occurred. In the United States, the Sandy Hook school is being destroyed and rebuilt due to the terrible massacre.

    • Linda Maday says:

      It was not Gamache’s mother that woke up next to her dead husband in bed, it was his aunt.

      • Linda Maday says:

        This takes place after Jane’s niece learns about her aunts death and asks when she can get into the house.

        • Hope says:

          Ruth and Linda–you are both right. In the original edition of STILL LIFE, published in 2005, Louise says, “Gamache had seen enough grief in his time to know that people handle it in different ways. His own mother, upon waking up next to her husband of fifty years dead in the bed, called her hairdresser first to cancel her appointment.” Astonishingly, it seems that no one noticed the contradiction with the early death of Gamache’s parents in subsequent books until a reader wrote to Louise about it late in 2011 — whereupon we changed subsequent editions of STILL LIFE to say that it was Gamache’s aunt who responded to her husband’s death in that way.

          As far as I know, the audio edition was recorded only once, so that would be unlikely to include the correction. Since it wasn’t possible to recall all the print and e-books that had been distributed by the end of 2011, earlier editions still include the reference to the 50-year marriage of Gamache’s parents, which turns out to be cut short in THE CRUELEST MONTH.

          • Linda Maday says:

            Thank you for this explanation. I downloaded an ecopy to my iPad for the re-read. After seeing your note I went looking for my older printed copy — there was Gamache’s mother!

          • Ruth says:

            Thank you for explaining this! I borrowed an old copy of Still Life and noticed this when I read it. I love authors that build their writing around a specific place and characters and this is an interesting example of that process. As the series progresses, considering Gamache as an ‘orphan’ impacts his decisions and heartaches.

          • Barb says:

            Hope, thank you! I went back and re-listened to all the books (I don’t currently have print copies to check) and this has been bothering me ever since I came across the first mention of the automobile accident.

    • Claire H. says:

      I also noticed the change regarding the death of Gamache’s parents. Has Louise Penny ever explained why she made the change? Did she thunk no one would notice? I’m such a fan, having read and re-read all her books, but this detail has always bothered me.

  10. Lizzy says:

    1~ I don’t believe a house can be haunted but they can appear to have a personality. In my childhood we had a ‘haunted’ house that kids would dare others to walk by. It was in reality a run-down, unloved house. Our imaginations are powerful and we can perceive many projections that a house may be telling us.
    2~Like others, I love how Gamache listens, I love his humble spirit. He sees you as a person and as someone with value.

    3~I don’t know. I might perceive, but deny it. With all my heart I would deny it, because how can a true friend do that?

    4~Oh my, I love each character! Gamache of course is my favorite.

    5~ I love his rules. A backbone for life. Saying I’m sorry can be hard along with I was wrong. Of course it’s easier to say those words to different people.

    6~I do love Ruth. I do wish she didn’t use the F word as I tend to be sensitive to that word. Love the ducks! It’s a great touch to show what Ruth is really like.

    What I love about Louise is how she can get inside people and vividly describe emotions. For example with Beauvoir, ( how do you pronounce that?) he is struggling with anger. As Penny describes it, “Rage that rips and claws indiscriminately. Blind and powerful and without conscience or control.”

    And the way she describes Hazel’s loss: How each footfall or creak made her think how Madeline was coming home and how she would look up expecting to see Madeline and how every minute of the day she lost Madeline again. I thought that was quite powerful and so true.

    • Barbara H. Johnson says:

      Penny ‘s website provides pronounciation for many characters’ names and places. She also explains some of the French sayings she uses.

  11. Claudia says:

    I had not read Penny’s books in order and I am really enjoying that perspective. I appreciate the reader who googled names in the story that adds another layer of meaning and highlights Penny’s intentions. April is “the cruelest month”, seasonally, and it emphasizes a difficult concept: death must occur for new life to begin. I love reading about new life, or hope, that seems to be fundamental to Louise Penny’s books.

    • Linda Maday says:

      Both my children were born in April, one on Easter Sunday, the other on Good Friday. It may be the cruelest month, but it’s also gloriously wild with flowers in the snow, babies in baskets, and death which is really just birth into new beginnings.

    • Jane F says:

      Claudia, I read your post with interest. Agree that it’s usually necessary for death to occur before new life can appear. However, in the poem by Eliot, he explains that it’s the cruelest month, because it’s the one where daffodils start to bloom because they feel the sun of spring inviting them to spring up, only to be doomed shortly thereafter by a blast of snow. In other words, April is the month where Spring and Winter still can collide– sometimes within days of each other. I suspect Louise Penny chose the title because there are going to be some examples where there’s going to be something that looks like a chance of life, but it’s a false hope. ( Didn’t want to write a spoiler for those who haven’t read the book before).

      • Meg R says:

        Ah, Jane. That’s precisely what happened to my daffs this year! Glorious golden trumpet heads cheered me every time I looked out of my kitchen window — then a temp drop and snow did them all in in one night! Winter was sooooo long this year that the appearance of those first bulbs cheered all of us.

        Thank you for including “The Wasteland” Haven’t been able to find my paper copy of it. Am going back to reread the one you’ve posted for us.

  12. Jane F says:

    So sorry! I guess my memory is not what it should be. After I wrote my last entry, I went to re-read Eliot’s poem, and the flowers there are lilacs and hyacinths, not daffodils. ( For some reason I always associate daffodils with spring!)
    Anyway, the poem itself is part of Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land. In re-reading it, I found that there’s even reference to a Madame Sosostris, who reads tarot cards! Thought it might be interesting for us to take a look at the actual poem itself, so here’s the first part:

    April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.
    Winter kept us warm, covering
    Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
    A little life with dried tubers.

    • Linda Maday says:

      Lilacs bloom on older growth.

      I have several plants I cut to the ground in fall, knowing melting snow and spring rain will stir the dormant roots (and the dried bulbs and tubers of the daffodil and crocus) to produce new growth.

  13. Jane F says:

    Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
    With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
    And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
    And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
    Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
    And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
    My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
    And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
    Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
    In the mountains, there you feel free.
    I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

  14. Jane F says:

    What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
    Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
    You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
    A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
    And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
    And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
    There is shadow under this red rock,
    (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
    And I will show you something different from either
    Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
    Frisch weht der Wind
    Der Heimat zu
    Mein Irisch Kind,
    Wo weilest du?

  15. Jane F says:

    Wo weilest du?
    “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
    “They called me the hyacinth girl.”
    —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
    Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
    Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
    Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
    Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
    Oed’ und leer das Meer.

    Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
    Had a bad cold, nevertheless
    Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
    With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
    Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
    (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
    Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
    The lady of situations.
    Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
    And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
    Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
    Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
    The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
    I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
    Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
    Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
    One must be so careful these days.

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