Why would anyone want to risk living in the outwardly charming British village of Midsommer?
The number of bizarre and sudden deaths that beset its residents must be an estate agent’s nightmare. The ultimate hard sell.
- Charming 18th century cottage for sale, all bloodstains removed, two previous owners shot, two knifed, one poisoned and another strung from magnificent oak beam in drawing room.
No place nor activity within the bounds of this bucolic retreat from the brutish world of big city life is murder-free. And the years have shown there is no tool, implement, artistic device, machine, drink or food that cannot be used to wreak sudden death.
But recent reading suggests it might not be alone in the killing stakes. It has a rival for the frequency with which a community’s seemingly idyllic life is shattered by murder.
Nestled in the forested landscape close to the Canadian city of Montreal is a similarly serene and close-knit community.
Like Midsommer, its inhabitants meet a brutal end with a scary regularity.
And this being the land of wandering bears, rampant moose, hunters and shooters and axe-wielding lumberjacks there is no lack of weaponry for committing fatal acts.
At first encounter the small village of Three Pines looks heaven-made for escapists, dreamers and naturally gentle people. Kind souls with not an evil bone or thought in their body.
Off the beaten track, bypassed by map-makers and serenely going about their daily business remote from the nastiness and horrors and the wider world.
A sort of Brigadoon that occasionally emerges from the mist to be stumbled upon by lost souls.
And also to attract the attention of the grizzled and urbane Armand Gamache, a loose cannon from the Surete du Quebec, and surely one of the best described and minutely defined characters in modern crime fiction.
He is truly a one-off. Far more than a perceptive clue-gathering detective. Silent observation of people is his way of unlocking the path into their deeds and motives.
Fingerprints, post-mortems, lab analyses, CCTV and all the other modern techniques are all very well. But for Gamache the answer lies within the mind and the soul.
Throughout the excellent succession of Gamache mysteries (seventeen of them and counting) this big yet gentle man copes with the brutality and nastiness that enfolds him with an endearing kindness.
Always determined to seek retribution for the victim, there is nevertheless an underlying sympathy for the perpetrators of often grisly and horrible killings.
As author Louise Penny says in a preface to The Cruellest Month, he has “a profound decency”.
To which one might add that Penny has a profound skill in painting such a wonderful character. Plus all those highly individual beings that he encounters not only in Three Pines but also in the devious machinations of his colleagues at police headquarters.
This is beautiful writing. Concise and precise. Every nuance of conversation, action, dress, eating and drinking captured without excess. Three Pines and its residents are as clear on the page as in the TV adaptation currently doing the rounds.
For what it’s worth, the foundation of The Cruellest Month concerns a seance that goes wrong. And the secrets that the subsequent police investigation gradually, and inevitably, unearths.
The plot weaves and twists, frequently misleading but always credible as Gamache immerses himself in the daily meanderings of the Three Pines’ inhabitants; eating in the bistro, overnighting in the B&B, setting up his incident room in a disused hall.
And always observing and absorbing. Soaking up the atmosphere.
Which means that we, crime fiction addicts all, have the added benefit of a compelling insight into a beautifully wrought microcosm of village life with all its allegiances and betrayals – and the countryside that defines it throughout the changing seasons.
A crime is committed. A mystery is solved. But The Cruellest Month is much more than the sum of these essential ingredients.