The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny

An inhabitant of Three Pines dies during a séance and Inspector Gamache must decide if the cause is fright, evil spirits, or murder. This is the third book set in the small village just south of Montreal, and the familiar characters are back again. In the first book Still Life we were introduced to Gamache and his team, including the surly agent Yvette Nichol, and the charming and eccentric inhabitants of Three Pines, many of whom are artists. The villagers reminded me of the characters in Martha Grimes's mystery series.

In the second book A Fatal Grace we learned a more about Gamache's political struggles within the force. In this sense, the book began to remind of Donna Leon's excellent mystery series set in Venice featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, one of whose main attractions is watching Brunetti negotiate the labyrinthine politics of the Venetian police force. However, I felt that the political aspect didn't mesh well with the humorous shenanigans of the eccentric village characters. Also, I was disappointed that the characters were not more complex.

In spite of my disappointment, I selected this third book because so many people gave it favorable reviews, some even calling it the best book they'd read all year. Also, that first book showed so much promise that I wanted to give the series another try.

Penny's prose is easy to read: her sentences are lovely, and the pacing is very good. However, the story didn't engage my attention. The characters continue to be one-dimensional; none of them drew me in and made me live inside the story. Also, the addition of supernatural elements—a witch, a couple of séances, a malevolent house—to an already uneasy stew of eccentric village characters and political machinations made it hard to know how to feel about the story.

Writing a series of books featuring the same set of characters allows the author unusual scope to develop those characters over time. For example, it's been very interesting to observe the changes in Dalziel and Pascoe in Reginald Hill's series, both their personal changes and the changes in their relationship.

However, a series also presents some pretty serious challenges. Along with character development, there has to be enough background to remind or inform readers of who the characters are and what has happened previously, without giving away important plot points from previous books and without boring the reader who is very familiar with the series. Laura Lippman and Nevada Barr do a good job of this. Also, in a non-mystery series, J.K. Rowling does an amazing job of sneaking in the necessary information from previous books, which is ironic since most of her fans have the earlier books memorized anyway.

Here, the reminders of details from Penny's earlier books are worked in very well. I wish the characters were more interesting and the tone more consistent. On the other hand, many people loved this book, so perhaps it is just a question of personal taste.

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