Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Louise Penny has brought the quaint streets of Quebec to the forefront of the literary world with her Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, and it was in large part due to the second novel, A Fatal Grace, winner of the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel. Following Chief Inspector Gamache once again, we are treated to his investigation into macabre Christmas murder in a picturesque Quebecois village.
Table of contents
Louise Penny Plans the Impossible Murder
Over the course of the numerous reviews I’ve written in the murder mystery genre, I’m quite confident I mentioned more than once just how lethal the British countryside seems to be, if the novels are to be believed.
I have a feeling Louise Penny is trying to give the convention a run for its money with her Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, the second book of which we’ll be looking at today, titled A Fatal Grace, winner of the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel.
Trying to get some rest from his last case (Still Life), Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surêté du Québec is called back into action by a macabre happening in the otherwise idyllic village of Three Pines in Quebec. A woman has been murdered in front of everyone, but nobody seems in much of a hurry to have the murder solved.
The victim in question, CC de Poitiers, was without exaggeration the most reviled member of the Three Pines community. Neither her husband, nor her lover, and not even daughter had any love for her, and what is there to say for the rest of the village residents. There wasn’t a single friendly face for her to see, right up until the moment she died.
The execution method in question is what prompted the need for Gamache’s expertise on this one. The victim was electrocuted in the middle of a frozen lake while watching the annual curling tournament, right in front of the entire village. Naturally, none of them saw anything, and if anyone did, they might just keep it to themselves considering CC’s reputation.
Just because it’s the truth doesn’t make it less insulting.― Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace
Not one to be dissuaded by a murder nobody wants solved, Gamache rolls up his sleeves and starts to dig beneath the surface of the village and into the closets and twisted corners of the residents’ lives. Soon, it becomes clear there are some very real dangers lurking around in Three Pines, and something is coming for Chief Inspector Gamache himself.
The Perfect Murder in A Fatal Grace
Maybe I’m completely in the wrong about this, but it feels to me like there was a time when one of the greatest appeals of murder mystery stories, was figuring out the (often needlessly) complicated method of murder itself. There are few satisfactions like unravelling the hidden possible workings which form impossible scenarios. In recent years, it seems like authors are settling for more traditional and plausible plans for their murderers, which makes sense, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the older approach to a certain degree.
This was the primary reason I was attracted to reading this novel (in addition to having read and enjoyed the first one as well), and I must say I definitely wasn’t disappointed in regards to the murder mystery itself. The whole idea for the structure of the murder itself was brilliantly thought-out by Louise Penny, and I would say the sense of mystery it inspires rivals some of the best locked-room novels out there. I was constantly trying to work it out in the back of my mind until the grand solution was revealed, an in my opinion this is exactly what good murder mysteries ought to be able to make the reader do.
Good hearts get hurt. Good hearts get broken, Armand. And then they lash out.― Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace
Additionally, the pacing of the story and its unravelling are quite fantastically-handled by Penny, taking little time to set things up before unleashing the plot on a full sprint forwards. It doesn’t meander in meaningless details, carrying a constant forward momentum which makes it quite easy to read A Fatal Grace in a sitting or two. For veterans of the genre, I think there’s a very solid challenge waiting to be undertaken, and plenty of room for those of you who prefer to simply hang on for the ride.
The People of Quebec
Though a lot of Gamache’s investigation is on the technical side of things, the human aspect also proves itself to be rather important. The village isn’t exactly big, and neither is our list of suspects with whom we have the chance to become acquainted with quite intimately before the end of it all. Consequently, Louise Penny took great care in shaping, evolving and unwrapping her characters.
They’re all distinguishable and unique enough not to get them mixed up, and it’s quite apparent most of them are hiding things beneath the surface, and it’s only a matter of time before Gamache pulls it all out into the light. However, I do want to say while they’re all definitely suspicious, they are far from being unlikable.
Don’t mistake dramatics for a conscience.― Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace
As a matter of fact, barring a couple of exceptions, I found most of the characters in A Fatal Grace to feel surprisingly human and relatable on many levels, to the point where it becomes possible to connect with their lack of empathy for CC’s murder. By the end of it, I was even partially hoping Gamache would let the culprit walk free.
Speaking of CC herself, I thought Louise Penny did some fantastic work into turning her into more than just the principal victim of the story. We learn quite a fair bit about her from all the villagers’ different perspectives, as well as the objective clues Gamache himself finds. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I do want to say she ended up feeling like one of the more interesting and better-developed characters of the story.
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Finally, Louise Penny always takes the opportunity to get her readers a bit better acquainted with Quebec and its people, and myself living in Montreal, Quebec, I can personally confirm the veracity of her portrayals. From the mannerisms of the people and the mix of French and English they use, to the picturesque countryside, I think she captures the spirit of the province as well as anyone ever has.
The Final Verdict
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny is a top-notch second entry into the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, offering a truly well-crafted and compelling mystery moving onward with little pause, set in a beautifully-described world populated by captivating multi-faceted characters.
If you’ve enjoyed the first novel in the series and are looking for more, or are simply in search of a strong murder mystery which harkens back to older days, then I do strongly recommend you check this novel out.
Louise Penny is a Canadian author who has taken to writing mystery novels where the events unfold in the province of Quebec, following the inspector Armand Gamache. Some of her better-known novels include Still Life which earned her the 2005 New Blood Dagger Award, A Fatal Grace which was the winner of the 2007 Agatha Award, as well as six additional Agatha Christie awards to this day.