59 pages 1 hour read

Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny is the third book in her Chief Inspector Gamache series. Published by St. Martin’s Press, the novel earned the Agatha Award for Best Novel of 2008. Formerly a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) journalist and radio host, Penny published her debut novel, Still Life, in 2005. The first book in the Gamache series, Still Life received numerous awards and propelled Penny into the top echelon of modern mystery writers. The series is praised for its character-driven narrative and finely crafted plots, and it was adapted into a television series by Amazon called Three Pines.

This study guide uses the eBook edition published in 2008 by Minotaur Books.

Plot Summary

Following the adventures of Inspector Gamache and his team in Still Life and A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month sees them all return to Three Pines, a small village in Quebec, to solve the murder of Madeleine Favreau. She died suddenly at a séance the villagers held at the Hadley house, an infamous local landmark that was the site of a prior murder. Gamache and Beauvoir, his second in command, have been in the Hadley house before, and even Beauvoir, a self-proclaimed skeptic, believes the house is evil and should be destroyed.

The séance was the second one, held on Easter Sunday; the first, two days earlier, happened at Gabri and Olivier’s bed-and-breakfast. Jeanne Chauvet, a Wiccan and psychic, came to Three Pines for a holiday, but Gabri arranged for her to entertain the villagers. While the first séance seemed like a bit of fun, the second, at the Hadley house, was frightening. At the height of the ritual, Madeleine had a heart attack and died.

Madeleine’s autopsy reveals ephedra, a banned substance, and Gamache realizes its presence in her system means that Madeleine was murdered. Additionally, she must have been murdered by someone close enough to know she had a heart condition, the result of her previous breast-cancer treatment. When Gamache begins to investigate, he discovers that although everyone seems to have loved Madeleine, there are several suspects in her death.

Madeleine lived with her closest friend, Hazel, since reconnecting after her cancer diagnosis. Before her death she was seeing Monsieur Béliveau, the local grocer, and seemed to be establishing herself in the community. Madeleine led a charmed life for as long as Hazel knew her; successful and popular, she quickly made a place for herself in Three Pines.

After considering several other suspects, Gamache discovers that Madeleine’s closest friend, Hazel, is the killer. Tired of living in the other woman’s shadow, Hazel worried that, as when they were in high school, Madeleine would take over a community that Hazel considers her own. In addition, she was interested in Monsieur Béliveau and resented Madeleine’s easy conquest of him. What finally pushed Hazel over the edge, however, was her own daughter’s love of Madeleine and the small act of her kissing Madeleine before Hazel when she came home from university. Hazel then lured Jeanne, who also went to school with them, to Three Pines, knowing Gabri would arrange an event that would frighten Madeleine enough that it, combined with the ephedra and her weak heart, would give her a heart attack. She scared Madeleine to death.

During the investigation, Gamache also deals with a threat much closer to home. Someone plants false stories about him and his family in the newspaper. Gamache believes it is the work of Sûreté officers, some of whom see his exposure of another officer, Arnot, as a betrayal of their code. He also knows that Agent Lemieux, one of the officers on his team, is working for that person. Gamache asks Agent Nichol to disrupt and antagonize the team so he can observe Lemieux and discover who is directing him.

When Gamache discovers that his betrayer is his closest friend, Superintendent Michel Brébeuf, he is shocked. It surprises him further that Brébeuf’s actions have nothing to do with the Arnot case but instead revolve around his intense jealousy. Brébeuf cannot understand why Gamache is the happier of the two of them when Gamache’s accomplishments do not measure up to his own.

In a climactic scene, Lemieux encourages Brébeuf to shoot and kill Gamache before deciding to do it himself. Nichol and Beauvoir save Gamache, and Lemieux is charged with assault and attempted murder. Gamache doesn’t have the heart, however, to charge Brébeuf, who quits his position and sells his home, leaving Montreal, his friends, and his community. Brébeuf, like Hazel, succumbs to jealousy, and they both find themselves alone.

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