I mentioned right around Thanksgiving that I’d read the first in Louise Penny’s series of mysteries about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the village of Three Pines in Quebec. That it took me only two months to read the next one (and not two years — sorry, Angela Thirkell) is practically a miracle. Still, I’m both glad and sorry. Glad, because A Fatal Grace was a terrific, satisfying mystery, well-written and well-constructed, human and compassionate. And sorry, because now I have only eight left to read in the series.
CC de Poitiers is a bitter, venomous woman. She makes life hell for everyone around her: her weak, ineffectual husband Richard, her miserable teenaged daughter Crie, her self-loathing lover Saul. Perhaps you wouldn’t peg such a person to be the head of a self-help empire? Meet the concept of Li Bien, which CC invented: a sort of insipid yoga-karma-color-balance idea she plans to spin into books, home goods, and studios across Quebec. Until, of course, she is murdered: electrocuted during the most exciting moment of an annual curling match at Three Pines. Enter, of course, the Chief Inspector.
One of the great pleasures of a series is that you get to meet characters more than once and watch the way they grow. Three Pines is small, and it could feel absurd to have more than one murder there. Instead, Penny creates characters who are complex, deep, and rich. After meeting the cast twice now, I still don’t feel I know their stories completely, and I feel they will continue to develop. This means that anything could take place in this village: friendship, marriage, working relationships, adultery, parent-child relationships, gossip, loneliness, mercy, resentment, joy. Murder is just one possible outcome.
One thing I think is interesting about this series so far is that it doesn’t pose Gamache as perfect. Certainly he is, and deserves to be, the hero rather than the anti-hero: he’s intelligent, gentle, compassionate, and observant. He’s also whatever the opposite of “gritty” is (smooth?), with his love for his wife, his appreciation for good food and wine, and his good working relationships. There is, however, a recurring notion that he is not immune to mistakes. He can misjudge others’ motives; he is sometimes impulsive; he can give a second or third chance where none is really warranted. What keeps him solidly in hero territory is that he always admits his lapses in judgment, looks for help, and tries again. This is so rare (in real life as in fiction) that it is a bit like observing someone from another planet, but it’s incredibly endearing.
This novel was slightly less compelling than Penny’s first, possibly because the victim was an outsider to Three Pines and someone no one really liked, unlike the victim in the first novel. But it was still amazingly good. I am eagerly looking forward to reading The Cruelest Month, and increasing my acquaintance with this excellent series.