A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny is the 2007 Agatha Award winner for “Best Novel,” and the 2nd in the Chief Inspector Gamache series.
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered, she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift. She might even have gone to her daughter's end of term pageant at Miss Edward's School for Girls, or “girths” as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer. But the only end she knew was near belonged to a man named Saul…
Some mysteries you read for the mystery itself—the twisty turns, the convoluted plot, the red herrings, and clever reveals. Some you read for the witty dialogue or derring-do; others for the atmosphere and impressive research involved in bringing the setting to life.
And some you read for the characters.
Louise Penny is an author firmly placed in this last category. This isn't to say that her plots, dialogue, or settings aren't stellar, too, but the real magic in the Inspector Gamache series lies in its wonderfully colorful cast of heroes, villains, and everything in between.
Penny knows how to sprinkle in just enough detail and just enough description to make her characters spring from the page, fully formed. And, she's one of the few I've come across who can show the darker or less attractive sides of her protagonists without ever falling into clichés or making them unlikable. They're real people, with all of the baggage, petty grievances, and personality quirks that comes part and parcel with humanity.
In A Fatal Grace, Penny's second foray into the quaint, picturesque Canadian village of Three Pines, the cast introduced in Still Life is in fine form. Everyone's a bit more rounded, a bit louder and more colorful—fitting, given the bohemian vibe of the artistic population.
Quiet, dutiful Clara Morrow has produced her best artwork yet, but remains largely overshadowed by her stoic, “serious” artist husband, Peter. Cracks are beginning to appear in their marriage, but they're still the most respectable, traditional members of the community.
Myrna—a lady large in every form of the word, from her personality to her physical size to her penchant for wearing loud colors—is a galvanizing force in her friends' lives, and still finds time to run her bookstore.
Ruth Zardo, the cantankerous old woman who nonetheless writes incandescent, award-winning poetry, is the type to curse others for the slightest show of sentimentality. Yet, she still makes the habitual evening walk she used to take with her now-dead dog, Daisy.
And, yes, of course the local B&B is run by a flamboyant gay couple, Olivier and Gabri. Gabri is a particular fave: loud, ebullient, but never truly stereotypical. He's in fine form in the jolly Christmas setting of this story:
Gabri, in his Victorian cape and top hat, led the carolers. He had a beautiful voice but longed for what he couldn't have. Each year Ruth Zardo visited the bistro as Father Christmas, chosen, Gabri said, because she didn't have to grow a special beard. Each year Gabri would climb into her lap and ask for the voice of a boy soprano and each year Father Christmas offered to kick him in the Christmas balls.
Then, of course, there's our intrepid hero, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec—an older man haunted by a department scandal where he clearly did the right, moral thing. Yet, he's still being hounded, even attacked, by his old comrades who disagree.
Gamache is a rare hero for a contemporary police mystery: he's unfailingly kind, compassionate, and understanding—a quiet speaker who commands attention by sheer force of sincerity. There won't be any dramatic gunfights with Gamache, no quippy one-liners when he takes the culprit into custody.
As a student of human nature, he knows how easy it is for anyone to make a fatal mistake, and that sometimes even calculated crimes can be rooted in a desperate need for escape, relief, or justice.
Such is the case here in A Fatal Grace. The victim is CC de Poitiers: a vicious, heartless, irredeemable woman disliked by all and mourned by none. She treated her family abominably; she purposefully hurt even casual acquaintances; she cheated and lied and stole, right up to the moment when she was electrocuted during a public curling competition—surely, the world is a better place with her gone.
But it's still Gamache's duty to uncover the motivations and means behind her death and bring the person responsible to justice.
And that's just another of Penny's great strengths as a writer; often her victims are the true villains, and the murderers were driven to the act out of great personal need. But, Gamache remains steadfast in his commitment to uphold the law.
He often sympathizes with the murderers, and frequently wishes things could have been different, but he never tampers with evidence, compromises his own integrity, or lets the guilty escape punishment. Because, no matter how nasty the victim was, a crime was still committed. There has to be one law to fit all, and all have to adhere to it. This fundamental belief is the driving force in Gamache's life, and often gets him into hot water in a world that refuses to see in such strict black and white.
But, it also makes him an incredibly noble protagonist, a grandfatherly paragon of the law that we rarely get to see in police procedurals, where wild cards, hot shots, and anti-heroes run amok (and get all the girls).
And, in a mystery landscape that's positively awash with “cozy mysteries”—all involving cats, recipes, or knitting patterns at some stage of the proceedings—Penny's Gamache novels prove a refreshing antidote.
This is a series that often feels homey and reassuring, with characters you grow to love and wish could call neighbors; a charming village that would be an absolute dream to call home, an idyllic oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of modern city life…
But Penny never, ever, blunts its sharp edges. Three Pines is almost perfect—but never completely, because it's still grounded in real life. Its inhabitants are usually the picture of neighborly affection—but not always, not in their secret hearts and behind closed doors.
As Gamache often proves: murderers look just like anyone else.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.