A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

I enjoyed Penny’s earlier book Still Life which was the first book in this series. What I liked best were the descriptions of the setting, a small village just south of Montreal, and the people who live there, many of whom are artists of one sort or another. In that first book, the villagers’ relationships and jealousies and secrets must be disinterred and disentangled in order to discover why and how their elderly neighbor died while walking through the woods on Thanksgiving morning. I liked the detective, Inspector Gamache, but I found the young agent who comes along on the case, Yvette Nichol overdone and unrealistic. Elements of the ending took me by surprise, always a good thing.

Here, a woman who has recently moved to Three Pines is electrocuted in the middle of a curling match, and Inspector Gamache is called from Montreal to investigate. The dead woman, a self-centered monster who showered her husband, daughter, and lover with verbal abuse, has some mysterious tie with the village. She has named her decorating/self-help company and self-published book “Be Calm” which is also the name of a spitituality center in Three Pines run by a local woman.

While I enjoyed the bits of Canadiana and curling lore, I was a little disappointed by this book. The descriptions are wonderful and the plot suspenseful, but most of the characters are too simplistic, either perfect saints or evil monsters. Unfortunately, agent Yvette Nichol, whose portrayal marred the first book, is back and, despite some additional backstory, still more of a caricature than a person. Gamache himself is a bit too good to be true. Only the young couple who help him, Clara and Peter, and a few of the minor characters are allowed contradictions and complexity.

Penny is an excellent writer, but some aspects of the book are clumsily handled. For example, there are a number of threads left hanging at the end, which I find frustrating, since part of what I like about mysteries is the resolution. Also, we know little of Gamache’s inner life. He is trustworthy, brave, loyal, etc. but needs some inner conflict to come to life. Penny attempts to do that through the use of what I call a “Chinatown”, an off-hand reference early in the story that isn’t fully explained until the end, subconsciously pushing the reader to keep going (see my blog entry on Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro). Here, the references to the Arnot case, something in the past that has deeply affected Gamache, are meant to be just such a Chinatown, but instead of making me want to read on, they irritated me.

In trying to figure out why they didn’t work here, I thought back to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and some of Laura Lippman’s books where the authors use this technique brilliantly. I think the difference is that Penny’s references are not off-hand. She might as well put them in the middle of a bulls-eye with arrows drawn toward them screaming, “This is important!” whereas Rankin in particular manages to drop his references inconspicuously in the middle of a conversation. The missing explanation seems to have no real importance, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I continue to puzzle over it.

Despite my complaints, I found this a good read. I hope that the series improves as Penny becomes more and more adept at her craft. It would not take much to make this series one of the very best around.

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