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By Louise Penny
McArthur & Company, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0755328956

I LAUGHED aloud while I was reading this book over lunch in the staff canteen. A colleague passing by asked what was so funny and flipped the book over to look at the cover. He became silent, gave me a strange look, and muttered something about strange taste before walking off.

I was nonplussed at first, and then I had to laugh again when I studied the cover thoroughly for the first time.

As you can see, it says The Cruellest Month, and “Murder, an attractive detective and terrific atmosphere”, as well as “Winner of the CWA New Blood Dagger”.

And all these dire-sounding words are set against a creepy looking red-washed image. My colleague must have been wondering what I could possibly find to laugh about in such a book.

But that’s the thing about Canadian author Louise Penny’s books: murder mysteries they may be but they can still bring at least a smile to your face, if not an outright laugh from your throat.

It’s all down to her characters. They are wonderfully drawn, fully rounded people with complications, idiosyncrasies and phobias, all of which lend themselves to some hilarious situations and great lines.

The good Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté (police force) in Québec’s largest city, Montreal, might be the putative hero but he’s just one figure in a wholly engrossing cast.

In fact, he doesn’t even appear until chapter nine; Penny has no qualms at all about not referring to her main character until it is logical for him to appear, after a murder has been committed. She has a whole village full of people to introduce to the reader first and she does so entertainingly in the first eight chapters.

This, of course, brings Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries to mind. Remember that prim and proper Englishwoman who seemed to live in the middle of a constant crime wave despite spending most of her life in Britain’s villages? I’ve only recently discovered Penny and haven’t read her other books yet; I wonder if she’s better than Christie in plausibly setting crime after crime in one small village?

Where Penny differs greatly from Christie is in the treatment of her characters – Penny is nowhere near as genteel as Christie. She puts most of her main characters through the mill, from Armand Gamache and the murdered woman (who has a spectacularly spooky death scene!) to the other main voice that shares the book with Gamache, that of Clara Morrow, an artist and relatively recent addition with her painter husband to the arty Three Pines community.

I was very taken by both Armand and Clara; both suffer greatly in the course of this tale but remain graceful throughout.

Armand is a little too graceful, perhaps, at first, as the book’s second, parallel plot involving conspiracy and corruption at the highest levels in the Sûreté unfolds – I find him irritatingly cryptic and saint-like at one point!

But as his family comes under attack and he hangs on to his temper and his career with his fingernails, he becomes much more human.

Clara’s test comes not from outside her family but from within; from her husband, in fact, who she calls the “other half of my soul”.

The episode in which her husband, the well-known “great artiste”, is confronted with Clara’s blooming talent and realises he is jealous had me squirming in discomfort, as it is so searingly painful for not only the husband but, later, Clara as well – and me, the onlooker. It really left a rank taste in the mouth.

This powerful scene, by the way, has no connection with the crime. Well, perhaps only peripherally, when a link is made with the crime at the end of the story.

Sometimes, I even forgot about the crime as I was drawn into the minutiae of these characters’ lives. Even the cops who travel from Montreal to be on Armand’s investigative team at Three Pines are all so interesting!

That, perhaps, is one weakness in The Cruellest Month: the characters, even the village itself, almost seem to overwhelm what is supposedly the main point of a murder mystery, the crime and its solution.

In fact, I felt the solution – revealed in typical Hercule Poirot style by gathering all the suspects at the crime scene – was not handled very well.

Underlining the importance Penny places in creating believable characters, in the end, the solution to the mystery also revolves around a character study. Even the parallel plot of police corruption boils down to the characters and their relationships.

Penny has said that, in Armand Gamache, she created a “nice” protagonist because she plans on living with him for many years to come.

Well, I say, excellent! Forget the crimes, let’s have more on these wonderful people. Well, okay, we can’t exactly forget the crimes, they are after all the novels’ raison d’etre. But I’m going to be anxiously following developments on Armand and Clara and her husband in Penny’s next book rather than wondering who the killer is.