Over the Rainbow

The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 320 pages)

A slew of awards and seven best sellers later, writer Louise Penny caught my attention.   As a prominent Canadian mystery writer, she has the credits to sell books easily.   Too bad this one took some getting used to before the charm of her tale took hold.   The rocky start was due in great part to the confusing character names, relationships and eerie references to a past horror experienced by the folks who inhabit a tiny village named Three Pines.   Yes, this is a village-set mystery in the style of Agatha Christie.   Moreover, there are multiple nationalities represented by the characters that make it quite interesting.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the French Canadian officer who is called in to determine whether the person who died during a séance in a spooky abandoned house was the victim of a murder or merely a weak heart.   To make matters complicated, the house was the scene of a previous death that was investigated by – you guessed it, Inspector Gamache.   Gamache has divided loyalties as this is the place where he feels most at peace, despite having traveled far and wide.   His internal struggles with the politics within the police force where he is high in the chain of command provide an engaging counterpoint to the main story line.

Penny’s writing style is lush and layered with quips that reference casual, current day commercial aspects of life such as, “he appeared closer than he looked.”   This comment was made by one of the characters who spied his reflection in an automobile side mirror.   There are also smart segues linked by subject matter as various characters are interviewed separately by two policemen.   In one instance sandwiches are being served in a small cottage and the handoff comes as sandwiches are being served at the town bistro.   These may be small matters but they serve to keep the reader involved through the use of everyday occurrences.   The other-worldly portions of the story and the location provide the escape element that readers of mysteries often seek.

Personal reactions by both police investigators and village folk to the events that transpire after the murder add a human touch and a sense of grounding.   Specifically, the notions of beliefs (Wiccan or Catholic) and relationships (gay/straight and human attachments to pets/animals) are intertwined with the wonder that comes from being in the presence of true artistic talent.   The village of Three Pines is home to Canada’s most prominent poet and one of its best-known painters.

This reviewer was struck by the depth of soul-searching and philosophizing that’s depicted in the book.   There is truly value added to the usual murder mystery in The Cruelest Month.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Many mystery buffs have credited Louise Penny with the revival of the traditional murder mystery made famous by Agatha Christie.”   Sarah Weinman

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