Review: A Fatal Grace

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2006.

Summary: An unliked but aspiring author comes to Three Pines and is murdered in front of a crowd at a curling match yet no one sees how it happened.

CC de Poitiers has just published a book, Be Calm, a mishmash philosophy of enlightenment through the suppression of emotion, symbolized by the color white. She hopes to launch a whole line of fashions and accessories around this idea. Yet for one maintaining control of emotion, she manages to make herself hateful to everyone around her–her lover and photographer Saul, her husband Richard Lyon, her daughter, Crie, and the people of Three Pines, where the family has purchased the old Hadley home.

She manages to disrupt the holiday cheer of the village, first by brutally silencing her daughter’s beautiful singing in church on Christmas eve, and then by dying in front of everyone at a traditional curling match following a holiday breakfast. Only it wasn’t a natural death. It was murder by electrocution, when she stood up to straighten a lawn chair askew. Yet none of the witnesses saw anything, and an electrocution of this sort was difficult to achieve, requiring a number of improbable factors to coincide. Who did this, and how, and why? Several items become key pieces of evidence–an ornament of the three pines with the letter L inscribed, a discarded videotape with one section distorted from repeated pauses, and an old pendant of a screaming eagle.

Gamache is called in, his second case in Three Pines. He had been reading an unsolved case file of a homeless vagrant woman who had been strangled in Montreal. Seemingly unrelated, Gamache and his team will discover the two cases are connected. Gamache will also discover that an earlier effort, the Arnot affair, to deal with corruption in the Surete is not over, that there are maneuverings going on to bring him down. One sign of this was the assignment of Agent Yvette Nichol to his team unrequested after her disastrous performance the last time she was in Three Pines. One compensation is a young detective, Robert Lemieux, who seems a quick study and fits in well with the team.

Some of the finest writing comes in the conversations of Gamache with Emilie Longpre, one of the “Three Graces” painted by Clara Morrow, with evidence of a fourth, missing Grace. The three include her, “Mother” Bea Meyer and Kaye Thompson, friends through life. Emilie is not “L,” whose son died young and was remembered by her for a signature violin piece he’d learned. She had been moved by Crie’s singing, and when she heard CC’s attack on her, was troubled by her failure to come to the unusual girl’s defense.

It’s not all conversation. There are drives through blinding blizzards, the panic of being trapped in a burning house, and a dramatic rescue. There are flashbacks, as Gamache and Jean Guy visit the old Hadley house, which figured in the terrifying ending of the first novel.

Of course there is the wonderful cast of Three Pines, Gabri and Olivier, Peter and Clara Morrow, and the curmudgeonly poet, Ruth Zardo, whose “beer walks” each day are finally explained. For the uninitiated, there is also an introduction to curling, and the high drama of “clearing the house,” which came at the very moment CC was electrocuted.

This was the second of Penny’s Gamache novels, good enough to win an Agatha Award in 2007. One revels in reading a work with no one-dimensional characters but real people with histories, hopes and secret and not-so-secret wounds. What a joy to glimpse the comfortable, companionable relationship of Reine-Marie and Armand, so healthy and “adult.” And despite the fact that it is the site of so many murders, Penny’s description of Three Pines makes it one of the favorite places in fiction where people would love to live. I know I would.

Review: Still Life

still life

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005.

Summary: The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer.

Jane Neal was an elderly retired teacher, seemingly beloved by everyone in the secluded town of Three Pines, near the Quebec/US border. Everyone had heard she was an artist. Yet no one had been allowed beyond her kitchen or saw her work. That is, until she entered a piece into the local Arts Williamsburg show–a painting called Fair Day. At first the jurors thought it was a child’s drawing, but then felt there was a peculiar power to this piece. When Jane learns the painting was accepted, she invited all her friends to a party the night of the show opening, at her house–Olivier and Gabri, the gay couple who owned the Bistro, Myrna, the bookstore owner, Ruth Zardo, the brilliant and curmudgeonly poet, Clara and Peter, an artist couple, and Ben Hadley, a bachelor artist whose mother Timmer had recently died after a battle with cancer.

The next morning Jane was found dead in the forest by Ben Hadley. She died of an arrow through the heart, an arrow removed. And so Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team discover Three Pines. At first the investigation appears to indicate a hunting accident, perhaps from a hunter from away who thought he had spotted a deer. Then a troubled youth, or his father. The youth had been part of a group throwing manure from a flower bed at Olivier and Gabri, mocking them for being gay. Jane, on the morning before she died yelled at them to stop. Suspicion then turned to Yolande, Jane’s niece, who thought she would inherit Jane’s estate, or her uncouth husband or son. Eventually the focus turns to those in the cafe who had received Jane’s invitation. Among these people, all of whom seemed friends, and friends of Jane, there was a murderer.

While Gamache and his core team of Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle LaCoste work together as a well-oiled machine, a new agent, Yvette Nichol, the daughter of immigrants, tries so hard to succeed on her first assignment that she fails to listen to Gamache, follow through on leads, and asserts herself where she is not welcome. Gamache, after much effort, must send her home. Yet her insights do move the investigation forward, leaving us wonder if this is the last we will see of her.

I picked up one of the books of this series (#10), loved it, and was told by others who like Penny’s work that I had to go back to the beginning. So I have, and I would say it was worth it, and I intend to go on. Penny has created a lovable mix of townsfolk and an investigative team. Gamache is the classic detective, seemingly slow at times, who watches, listens, and thinks, and tries to cultivate these virtues in others, including Nichol. There is a winsome integrity about him, typified in his willingness to accept a suspension rather than arrest a man he considered innocent.

I have encountered many who wish Three Pines was a real town, a place of rural beauty and rich local culture. In this book, we learn the reason for the name. We also discover for all its beauty and seemingly serene atmosphere, it is hardly a place of still life. Penny reminds us that deep within people we think we know, there are hidden depths, and hidden secrets, that sometimes blossom into exquisite beauty, or the most terrible acts. In words quoted by Jane from W.H. Auden the night before she died:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Or in words on Jane Neal’s mirror, words Agent Nichol did not yet understand, “You’re looking at the problem.”

Review: The Nature of the Beast

the nature of the beast

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat.

I never knew about Louise Penny until a year ago. One of the benefits of hosting an online book page is you learn of interesting authors you’ve not heard of. I’ve always loved classic crime fiction, and a great detective. I’ve been converted. Louise Penny’s works, and her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache belong with this group.

I made a mistake and bought number eleven in the series, thinking it was the first. At this point, Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are retired in the idyllic village of Three Pines in eastern Quebec, a place seemingly forgotten by GPS systems. A local theatre group is rehearsing a play by an unnamed author, She Sat Down and Wept. Gamache and a number of friends, including his successor Isabel Lacoste and his son-in-law Jean Guy are relaxing in a local bistro when Laurent LePage, a nine year old boy prone to telling tall tales bursts in with another one of a huge gun in the forest with a picture of a scary woman being drawn by seven horses on it. No one believes him and Gamache drives him home to his parents, Al and Evie, aging hippies (he, a supposed draft dodger) with a farm on the edge of town.

The next day, Laurent goes missing, and is found dead off the side of the road, apparently having lost control of his bicycle, falling and striking his head on a rock–or so it seems to all but Gamache. Something is not right about the position of the body, but no one buys it. Then Gamache realizes something else–Laurent’s favorite stick (his “gun”) is nowhere to be found. A search in the woods for the “gun” leads to a much bigger gun, hidden in camouflage for years. On it, an engraving of the whore of Babylon, being drawn by seven furious steeds. At it’s base, Laurent’s favorite stick. Laurent was telling the truth, which he paid for with his life. And no one, not even Gamache had believed him. Actually someone did, the murderer.

The story gets more complicated as an elderly physicist and two intelligence agents (“file clerks”) who all had been investigating this weapon for years, descend on the quiet village and join in a quest to unravel the tale of its makers, seeking to find the plans for this weapon, which, in the wrong hands, could bring untold devastation and global conflict.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the author of the play is a wicked, sadistic serial murderer, John Fleming, with whom Gamache has a secret, and haunting connection that has been brought back to life. That is not his only connection to Three Pines. A batty old poet and kindly old grocer also carry haunting memories of this man.

Penny does so many things so well in this book. The setting is one I’ve seen a number of people say they would love to live in. The characters have depth, especially Gamache, but also Reine-Marie, Jean-Beauvoir, Lacoste, and even Ruth Zardo, the batty old poet. Gamache at this stage is deeply conflicted, wounded and weary from his efforts to cleanse the Sureté, yet ambivalent about really calling Three Pines and retired life the only life he will know. The unsolved murder of the boy he did not believe awakens all of this. Combine all this with superb writing and an ever-more suspenseful plot and you have all the ingredients of great crime fiction.

As I write, there are fifteen books in this series with a sixteenth due in September 2020. Temptation, thy name is Gamache! I suspect this won’t be the last review of a Louise Penny work you see here.