Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review: "The Cruelest Month," Louise Penny

By Paul Carrier

A murder during a séance? It sounds a bit over the top, even as the centerpiece of a mystery novel. But if the author is Louise Penny and the investigator is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec provincial police, what may seem tiresomely gothic proves to be anything but.

In this third volume of Penny’s Gamache mysteries, the Montreal-based detective revisits the tidy and obscure, but murder-prone, village of Three Pines, this time to decide if local resident Madeleine Favreau died of fright or was killed.

You can rule out fright.

As she did in the previous installment of the series, Penny mixes a stable of recurring locals with a few newcomers, including the murder victim and  several potential suspects. But it is Gamache himself who is the most intriguing character in The Cruelest Month, and the reason fans keep coming back for more. Compassionate, complex, thoughtful and a tad mystical in his outlook, Gamache is, at the same time, a seasoned pro with a stellar track record of solving murders.

Just as fascinating as the quest to identify Favreau’s killer is the escalation of a behind-the-scenes campaign by conspirators within the Sûreté du Quebec (as the provincial police are known) to destroy Gamache for the role he played several years earlier in bringing renegade officers to justice.

Penny first hinted at Gamache’s professional troubles in Still Life, the first book in the series, and she began filling in the missing pieces in A Fatal Grace. But it is here that the reader’s patience is rewarded with a more detailed explanation of how Gamache’s principled stand fueled a drive for retribution.

Now Gamache has at least one, and possibly two, agents on his team who are aligned with his enemies, so he must lead a murder investigation while simultaneously watching his back.

The forces within the Sûreté that are arrayed against Gamache are sinister, secretive and ruthless, using the media to attack his character, and that of his family, with damaging innuendo. Even as the great but low-keyed detective attempts to solve the mystery of Favreau’s death, the reader is left to wonder if Gamache himself will survive efforts to discredit him.

Gamache’s problems make The Cruelest Month the darkest of the first three books in the series of Gamache mysteries. Solving a murder is one thing - the victim is, after all, dead. But Gamache, very much alive, is at the mercy of powerful forces whose ranks include a close friend who has betrayed him.

Spicing things up, but in a more pleasurable vein, are the novel's witty dialogue and its seemingly endless gastronomic references. Gamache, his subordinates and the locals in Three Pines are forever chowing down on all manner of goodies, from Tim Hortons doughnuts to lobster bisque, charbroiled steak, curried apple soup and the countless other delicacies served up at the local bistro.

Don't try to read The Cruelest Month on an empty stomach, because the mouth-watering treats that pop up on page after page will trigger a constant urge to snack, and your waistline may take a very cruel turn of its own.