This was an hard book to read. In keeping with the title, cruelty was on display in ways large and small. All murder mysteries contain the cruelty of murder, but this one also had the cruelties that we committ on the people we love most and the self-inflicted damage we do to ourselves.
I almost quit this book. I posted in the Facebook group about the anxiety I was feeling about Gamache being set up, but it was a moment between two other characters that almost got me. I think there is a story arc building in this series about Peter and Clara, a married couple, both of whom are artists. Peter has been the more successful, but Clara has recently caught the attention of an important person and is set to eclipse him. He is jealous and says something to her that is not on the surface cruel, but is intended to undermine. I almost quit the book, because Penny captured that moment of cruelty so well that I could feel it. I could feel Clara’s confidence shrink and Peter’s self loathing grow. There are probably a million moments of petty selfishness in a marriage, but that moment between Peter and Clara felt like the blow from which they won’t recover. They might not realize what has happened, but any reader knows. I know there are a bunch more books in the series. I have no idea whether their relationship factors into the series, but I would be surprised if it doesn’t. Clara has been as much a heart of the series as Gamache.
The murder mystery is the weakest element of this particular book. It is swamped by Gamache’s troubles stemming from the Arnot case, which happened before the beginning of the series. The strongest element in this book is the conversations Gamache has as he winds his way to the resolution of the mystery. In talking to former psychologist Myrna, Gamache is able to explore one of the central concepts of the book, the near enemy.
Myrna nodded. ‘Pity and compassion are the easiest to understand. Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior.’
‘So pity is the near enemy of compassion,’ said Gamache slowly, mulling it over.
‘That’s right. It looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it. And as long as pity’s in place there’s not room for compassion. It destroys, squeezes out, the nobler emotion.’
Gamache talks about the secrets that kill, but in The Cruelest Month the killer is jealousy. Jealously doesn’t always murder, but it kills friendships, marriages, and poisons the lives of those who hold on to it.