A Fatal Grace is the second of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache stories. It was first released in Canada as Dead Cold in 2006. Although it takes several chapters before the primary murder of interest occurs, Armand Gamache ends up back in Three Pines again. For a small village outside of Montreal, Three Pines might rival Cabot Cove in Maine for the most murders per capita, and this is only one of the murders being investigated by the famed Chief Inspector this time. He has two investigations going on. The primary case occurs on Boxing Day in Three Pines and involves his full team. The secondary case is one involving the murder of a homeless woman in Montreal that occurred a few days earlier though most of his team is unaware of the Montreal murder. He keeps that case close to the vest as it is a recent one that he’s investigating on the side for a friend with the Montreal Metropolitan Police. Gamache is a Chief Inspector with the state police – the Sûreté du Quebec, and he and his wife (Reine-Marie) have a Boxing Day tradition of combing through the cold cases brought by Marc Brault of the city’s force while Brault does the same with some of Gamache’s more stubborn cases. Why such a recent murder would be a cold case intrigues Gamache. As for the trade, new sets of eyes could sometimes break the logjam.
The official case begins when Gamache and his team are summoned to Three Pines to investigate the suspicious death of a relatively new resident, Cecelia de Poitiers, or CC to those who knew her. This universally disliked woman is electrocuted in the middle of a frozen lake while watching the annual curling match. A most unusual occurrence to be sure, even more so given the seemingly complete lack of awareness of any wrong doing at the time of the incident, not even from CC’s personal photographer, Saul Petrov, who by all accounts was buzzing around CC the entire time and should have seen anybody who might have been hanging around.
Gamache has his hands full again with far too many suspects and not enough facts at the outset, but his dogged determination to unravel the puzzle at hand is eventually successful albeit after navigating through the various twists and turns. Unlike with Still Life, This time, I surmised the solution along the way and initially dismissed the possibility until there wasn’t another viable alternative.
CC de Poitiers was a despicable person according to everyone with whom the Chief Inspector and his team speak. Gamache is slightly dumfounded that anybody could be so universally despised, but the more he learns about her, the more he suspects there is more to the story. He seeks help from many of the friends he made when he was last summoned to Three Pines including Clara and Peter Morrow, Myrna Landers, Olivier Brulé, Gabri Dubeau, and Ruth Zardo, and their insights though useful initially complicate his task.
Gamache also gets some help from three village elders, Émilie Longpré, Bea Mayer (Mother Bea), and Kaye Thompson, who Clara refers to as the “Three Graces” in one of her paintings. They each have a long history in the Village and know all of its skeletons, quite a few of which are uncovered in the course of solving CC’s murder.
Interestingly, the old Hadley mansion also features prominently in the story, albeit under new ownership. The first mystery is why Poitiers, her husband Richard Lyon, and their daughter Crie owned the old Hadley place. The mansion has a sordid history and was first encountered in the first book in the series. Because of some traumatic events from the previous case, the place causes both Gamache and his deputy, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, no small bit of anxiety just entering the house.
Agent Robert Lemieux who was a part of the team in their last Three Pines adventure is back, this time with a bit more responsibility and even some intrigue. Agent Isabelle Lacoste works her computer magic on the case. Agent Yvette Nichol also returns much to Gamache and Beauvoir’s chagrin. She’s ordered to the case by Gamache’s superiors, and we learn more of her backstory though it’s unclear whether she’s actually a friend or a foe on this case.
As challenging as the case of CC’s demise and the other case Gamache has chosen to pursue are, an old case also casts a long shadow over Gamache and his team. While hinted at in Still Life, we learn more about what the Arnot case entailed, how it put Gamache in conflict with his department, and how its tentacles continue to torment him in ways which he’s not fully aware.
So what made CC so despicable? She treated everyone like the stuff you scrape off the bottom of your shoes, and her family got more than their fair share of her venom. The village was treated to a blatant display of her animosity toward her daughter after a Christmas service. Crie sang from the back of the church beautifully surprising the entire village assembled there. She possesses a gorgeous voice that enchants almost all who hear it and a beautiful brain that garnered her top grades in school (especially in math and science) despite her being increasingly withdrawn. Her gifts are all trapped in an unappealing body that is much like her father’s. CC treated her daughter as an imbecile doing nothing but tearing her apart no matter what she did. After Crie’s stunning impromptu display in church, CC verbally disparaged her on the way out for all the village to hear, and nobody stepped forward to protect the child, not even her father who was right there. CC verbally abused all who knew her knowing just how to dig deep to hurt them the most.
Some of the weaving together of the cases this time seems a bit forced, but each gives readers a greater appreciation for Gamache, his team, and the growing cast of villagers from Three Pines. The Gamache series currently consists of 18 books, so there is ample room for character growth. Much of this growth is artfully stitched together across the books. This time, Gamache even introduces Reine-Marie to his Three Pines friends after they solve the case, though from his previous descriptions to her she feels that she’s known them all along.
There’s also a bit more colorful language this time, but to be fair, when it happens it fits the situations. The story overall has the same gentler feel compared to the more gruesome stories by other authors. Yes, there are a couple of murders to address, but the emphasis is much more on the character development and relationships than on the gore of the murders themselves. Even Gamache’s team starts to be a bit more sympathetic to the plight of the people with whom they interact in some surprising ways.
The other thing that comes through is that overall, the people of Three Pines care about one another, and they welcome Gamache almost as extended village family. They are glad that the Sûreté du Quebec sends him rather than somebody they don’t know and trust.
A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny
One thought on “A most ungraceful exit”
Great review! I’m intrigued by the character development and relationships in the story. The small village setting with its colorful characters sounds like a delightful backdrop for the investigations.
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