The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (2008)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Book #3

the cruelest month l penny

The worst of winter seems to be receding from the small, lovely village of Three Pines. Snow is melting, flowers are beginning to bloom, and the town residents are cheerfully preparing for the village’s Easter celebrations. In the opening chapters, readers get to catch up with some of the characters they have grown to love in the series’ first two books as they — along with some new faces — plan for egg hunts and potluck lunches.

At the local B&B, the proprietor Gabri has planned a surprise event for Easter weekend — a seance is to be held, lead by a psychic who is visiting the village for the holiday. Some villagers are appalled at the idea of raising the spirits of the dead: some protest that a seance is in bad taste because the town has been the site of two brutal murders in recent years. Others because it seems sacrilege to host a seance during the Easter holidays. A group of villagers who see it as a lark arrive at the B&B on Good Friday. While fun, the seance does not produce any ghosts; which the psychic suggests is because the B&B is too happy of a place and the guests at the seance too cheerful.

Why not try again, it is suggested, but this time, at the haunted Old Hadley House?

The second seance is much darker, the house’s horrific past seems to be much more conducive to calling up the dead. Indeed, the guests at this seance not only stir up the house’s ghosts, but they make a new one when a local woman named Madeline is scared to death during the event.

Once again, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called the the sleepy village to investigate when it becomes clear that Madeline’s death was not only because the woman was very frightened; her death was hastened when she was drugged by someone before the seance began, drugs that helped stop her heart.

By all accounts the dead woman was beloved by all and no one can imagine who would want her dead. Gamache and his team know that love can turn to hate over time, and that some murderers can hide their evil intent even from those closest to them.

As the case plods along, Gamache is introduced to the idea of the “near enemy” theory by town book-shop owner and psychologist, Myrna Landers. It is possible, he is told, that people can hide their true intentions behind the mask of another emotion. What on the surface looks like compassion can really — in the mind of a person with ill-intent — be pity. Some might see a person in love, but inside, he or she might really just be feeling obsessive attachment: a emotion that is dark and controlling. As Gamache begins to ponder this theory, he suspects that the “near enemy” is indeed at the heart of the case. The murder is masquerading as one type of person, while a more sinister and vindictive person lies underneath.

Yet another masterpiece of mystery fiction by Penny, filled with heart, wisdom, and compassion. On to the next book in the series, A Rule Against Murder.

Advertisements

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Book #2

A_Fatal_Grace

In her second book in the outstanding Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny takes us once again to the picture-perfect village of Three Pines in the days leading up to Christmas. Nestled in the mountains outside of Montreal, Three Pines is a small, sleepy, village filled with good people, cozy homes, and cheerful businesses. It is a place painted with such detail and heart by Penny that readers can imagine they are in the village along side the book’s characters: walking along the snowy town green, looking up at the towering pine trees by the lake, glancing in the windows of the tidy homes to see Christmas trees lit and fires roaring. Three Pines is a place everyone wishes to call home.

This Christmas, there is a dark stain sullying the village — CC de Poitiers. CC is hard woman who has alienated or insulted many of the villagers since her recent move to Three Pines. Along with her husband and daughter, CC is living in the old Hadley House, a house that looms over the town, a reminder of past horrors, of murder and pain. To her family, CC is hateful toward her daughter and cruel and dismissive of her husband. To the villagers in her new town, she is mean-spirited and largely detested. In a short time of living there, CC has managed to create a long list of people who could be called her enemies. But CC is possessed by a sort of madness, an obsession with herself that blinds her to how much others loathe her, all she cares about are her spiritual “teachings” that she is trying to bring to the (dull, stupid) world around her. She wants to enlighten these poor, backwoods slobs about the real truths of the universe; and she will stop at nothing until she has made millions leading the world down her “path”, which she calls Be Calm.

Despite the ill-will that CC has been spreading in town, Christmas finds the villagers happily celebrating their beloved holiday traditions: church, parties, shared meals, gift-giving, and well-wishes. One local tradition at Christmas is a Boxing Day breakfast and curling match that raises money for local charities. It is at this match the CC’s misdeeds catch up with her. She is electrocuted to death in front of the entire community, yet no one seems to have know who committed the crime.

Enter Armand Gamache, Chief Homicide Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec, and his investigative team who are dispatched from Montreal to solve the crime. Wise, patient, calm, and unfailingly kind, Gamache is known and liked in the town of Three Pines and utterly worshiped by his fellow officers. With his signature slow pace, intimate interview style, and his determination to examine the feelings of those involved in the crime; Gamache begins to piece together a list of suspects who might have wanted to kill CC…a list that is very, very long.

Through the ice, snow, and cold; Gamache and his team unearth the truth about who CC was and why she was such a hard, hateful woman and start to connect her to those people she had hurt, exploited, and abused, knowing that one of them was sure to be revealed as the killer.

Louise Penny is a brilliant writer and this book was utterly fantastic! Her prose is gorgeous; so poetic that it is almost spell-binding. Her words bring to life Three Pines in stunning detail and she presents us with characters who are so life-like it seems entirely possible that they will step off the pages of her book, as real as her readers. I have already started the next book in the series and cannot wait to read more about the characters — good and evil — Penny has brought to life.

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz (2017)

Orphan X Series, Book #2

the no where man

The Orphan X novels are not works I am typically drawn to, with their secret agent/ass-kicking characters and lengthy gun fights; but I read the first book in the series, Orphan X, while at the beach last summer and found myself greatly entertained by Evan Smoak and his mission and so I picked up the sequel, The Nowhere Man, to see if his story continued to intrigue me. (You can read my review of Orphan X here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-zt  )

Taken from a boys group home for orphan’s when he was twelve, Evan was trained to become an elite assassin for a covert US Government program under the code name Orphan X. Evan completed missions all over the world for the program, making considerable amount of (unrecorded, illegal) money in the process. When the work began to take too much of an emotional toll, Evan retired and committed himself to using his skills and money to help the downtrodden, exploited, and abused.

Under the new moniker, The Nowhere Man, Evan finds victims and helps them escape their abusers…generally by killing the abuser in a spectacularly complex and dramatic way, while also taking out anyone who colluded with the abuser to hurt others. With a legion of high-tech weapons, custom-made vehicles, aliases and super-computers, he has liberated girls sold into sex-slavery; workers exploited in sweat-shops; children taken by pedophiles; and on and on the list goes.

Since he has spent his entire life learning to work without detection, Evan is shocked when — in The Nowhere Man — he finds himself the prisoner of a master-villian, René Cassaroy. René has no idea he has captured a sophisticated and highly-trained killer, he has eyes only for Evan’s enormous bank accounts. He has drugged Evan and is holding him in a remote mansion until Evan agrees to transfer all of his money to René.

Of course, Evan has no plans to remain a captive and soon he is kicking ass and killing René’s men right and left; often with no more than a paperclip or a drinking straw. As he fights he way out of the compound, he works to free as many of René’s other prisoners as he can along the way.

While this book was not as thrilling as the first in the series, it was still enjoyable. The super-villian is a bit cartoonish and the prolonged captivity-escape-captivity cycles slowed the action way down. That said, I would definitely sign up to read the third book in the series, and I would do so with high hopes that Gregg Hurwitz returns Evan to his original mission — saving the hopeless — for those stories are far more compelling than one that centers around one villian.

The Private Patient by PD James (2008)

Part of the Adam Dalgliesh series, Book #14

I love P. D. James’ murder mysteries, due in large part to how much they demand of the reader. Incredibly dense and complex, her books cannot be rushed and often present multiple possible suspects who have complex relationships to the victims. The sheer amount of detail that goes into each of her books makes them very easy to re-read, as I did this weekend with The Private Patient. Not only had I had I forgot whodunnit, there were many, many tiny clues and nuances that I missed the first time around.

Rhoda Gradwyn is a wealthy and powerful investigative journalist who has lived most of her life with a large scar on her face — courtesy of a drunken, abusive father — but has finally decided to have plastic surgery to remove it, for no other reason than she “no longer has need of it.” Rhoda chooses to one of the most respected, and most expensive, surgeons in London to remove the scar and, to protect her privacy, opts to have the surgery not in London but at a private clinic Dr. George Chandler-Powell operates for his wealthiest patients, in a restored manor house in Dorset called Cheverell Manor.

Rhoda arrives in Dorset for her operation to find lush, opulent accommodations and world-class service from the staff. What she does not realize, is that she — or at least her work — is known to many of the staff working at Cheverell, and some consider her “brand” of journalism  to be exploitative and cruel to the subjects of her pieces.

When the morning following her surgery the kitchen maid finds Rhoda strangled in her bed, the small staff at the manor are shocked and terrified, as they assume it was an outsider who breached security and killed her. However, her death catches the attention of the Prime Minister and an elite squad of detectives from London are brought in to investigate.

Leading the squad is, of course, James’ brilliant police investigator Commander Adam Dalgliesh and two younger detectives, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith. Together the three of them move into houses on the grounds of the manor and begin the painstakingly slow process of solving the murder.

One thing that becomes clear almost immediately that it is someone living at Cheverell Manor who was responsible. As the detectives work, they have to uncover the complicated ties that bind all of the residents of the Manor to one another and to Rhoda and try to determine who had a grudge against the journalist that was contentious enough to lead them to murder her.

Just like all of PD James’ Dalgliesh books, this one is a intelligent and compelling murder mystery, that allows readers to follow along as the detectives piece the story together and zero in on the murderer.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

Echoes In Death JD Robb (2017)

For an introduction to the In Death series, see this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/in-death/

For a review of the In Death book that proceeded Echoes in Death in the series, view this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/apprentice-in-death-by-jd-robb-2016/

echoes in death cover

Echoes in Death, the 44th book in JD Robb’s prolific futuristic, science-fiction murder mystery series, opens with Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, discovering a naked and battered woman wandering the frozen New York City streets. After racing her to the hospital they learn that she is the young wife of a prominent surgeon. Once the hospital staff confirm her identity and concur that the young woman has been the victim of a brutal physical and sexual attack; Dallas and her partner, Peabody, arrive at her home to find her husband has been murdered, presumably by the same attacker as his wife.

On the surface the attacks appear to be a rape/murder perpetrated in the course of a home invasion. All evidence points to that conclusion: the home of a wealthy couple invaded, the couple attacked, and the attacker had left only after stealing artwork, cash, and jewelry. As the wife begins to regain her memories of the evening, and Dallas and Peabody interview friends of the couple, information that suggests that the husband abused his wife (and possibly a previous wife) comes to light and the cops have to work out whether she killed in self-defense or if someone else was involved in an elaborate escape plan.

Two fellow NYPD detectives approach Dallas and Peabody with evidence that links two of their cold cases with her murder investigation and all four detectives agree that the three cases are similar enough that the attacker most likely is a serial rapist who has escalated into murder.

Tracing the intricate relationships between the three cases, the team begin to uncover a pattern: the murderer is targeting prominent, wealthy couples in which the wife is extraordinarily beautiful. Dr. Mira, the department psychiatrist and recurrent character in the series, creates a chilling profile that suggests the killer is attacking “surrogates” who reminds him of someone he has long known and long wanted to harm.

Although this series can be formulaic and repetitive, this book felt reinvigorated and the plot and details kept it feeling fresh and fast paced. A dark series, too dark for those sensitive to graphic murder mysteries, but one that has fought to remain vital after forty+ books.

Thankless in Death by JD Robb (2013)

I was startled to learn that I had missed a book in JD Robb’s In Death series, a series which I have been reading for years. Even though the series is loosing a bit of its appeal after more than 40 books, for loyalty sake, I checked out the missed book, Thankless in Death, and read it yesterday.

An introduction to the series, and a commentary on the series and its author, was written by me and published on this site in 2015.

Devoted in Death is the forty-first book in the Eve Dallas “…in Death” series by prolific writer JD Robb (nom de plume for Nora Roberts, who has written hundreds of additional books under her real name). I have read all of the books in the series, many of them more than once, and always find they are well worth the read. The books are science-fiction murder mysteries set in the 2060’s, following the life and work of NYPD detective Eve Dallas. Despite the futuristic settings and high-tech gadgetry, the books are largely told in the traditional police-procedural style. The stories portray, in graphic detail, the murders committed (often in very dramatic ways) and the minutiae of police work required to solve them.

A moment of commentary here seems in order. I know that serialized books in general are dismissed as overly simplistic and often formulaic. Some readers would say that murder-mystery serials sensationalize crime and gore and sentimentalize the work of the police. Novels such as the In Death series may not be “literature,” but the author never sets out to write a Pulitzer, she sets out to entertain readers. I suggest that there can easily be room in any reader’s book list for novels such as these. It can be tiresome and confining to only read books at the high-end of the literature spectrum. While there is much value in books that demand a lot of their readers, there is also value in books that ask just a little. Books such as the In Death series demand only two things: that we come willing to be entertained (even if we have to suspend disbelief at times) and that, especially when we read serials, we are looking to form deeper connections to story’s main characters.

We meet Eve Dallas in In Death Book One as she is both becoming a NYPD detective and forming relationships with a slew of characters who will appear in most of the following books including: her billionaire lover-turned-husband, her hippy police partner, a savvy news reporter, an orphan turned rock-star, the police department shrink, and many more. My continued love of the series is largely tied up in these relationships, more so than the detective stories (although those are compelling as well). An abused former foster child, Dallas must open her life to welcome in more and more friends and loved ones, something that does not come easy. She must also deal with her unexpected celebrity resulting from both her sensational police work and her marriage. These caring relationships, and the steamy love life she shares with her husband, Roarke, are a nice counterpoint to the otherwise dark material of the books. (Another comment: the fact that her books include romance — and not just sex — is often cited as evidence of their inferiority to similar books written by men.) — Originally posted October 18, 2015

Thankless in Death finds Eve Dallas and her partner Peabody working to solve a double homicide in the days before Thanksgiving 2060. A husband and wife were murdered in what appeared, initially, a home invasion. Discrepancies on the scene do not sit right with Dallas, and she soon suspects that the couple’s adult son is their murderer. Once it becomes clear that her hunch is correct, Dallas and Peabody begin begin to work the case assuming that the son has gone into hiding. They are both shocked and angered when they learn that this was not a one-time crime of passion and the man has not run, but rather he has decided to use his new found “skills” to hunt down and kill everyone against who he has a grudge. Knowing that they are now dealing with a unstable serial killer, Dallas and Peabody are racing the clock to catch him while the try to puzzle out whom he plans to target and in what order.

Thankless in Death also finds Dallas and her husband preparing to host a large family Thanksgiving in their New York home — an event that makes our main character feel panicked and claustrophobic.  After spending most of her adult life dedicating herself to her police work, she still finds it a shock that she has a family that she has married into, and a family of friends and loved ones she has grown. While she feels fiercely protective of her extended family, she still finds it a tremendous challenge to have to welcome them — and their opinions, their drama, their chaos — into her life.  Despite her inclination to cut herself off from others, something she can easily justify since her work as a police detective is all-consuming, it is her husbands insistence that she make time for family and holiday celebrations that, in the end, fill Eve’s heart of love and gratitude.