A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

December 23, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007) French title: Sous la glace.

I know everybody’s doing end-of-year posts and all but I’m not quite ready to let 2016 go yet. 2017 is still one week away! So, I’m writing another billet.

penny_fatal_graceLast year I read Still Life by Louise Penny and enjoyed it so much that I bought the second instalment in her Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace. Armand Gamache is the head of the investigation department in the Sûreté du Québec. As in Still Life, A Fatal Grace is set in the fictional village of Three Pines. It’s located in Québec, in the Eastern Townships, the part of Québec between Montreal and the American Border.

The villagers are preparing Christmas in quaint Three Pines and the festivities include a traditional curling tournament on a frozen lake. A newcomer to Three Pines named CC de Poitiers is murdered during this tournament, electrocuted on the lake. CC de Poitiers had managed to alienate the village against her, her spineless husband and her neglected and unhappy daughter. CC neglects her daughter and openly treats her bad. She has a lover, Saul, that she brought around Three Pines for the holidays. She just wrote a self-help book and is convinced she will be famous and successful. She doesn’t hesitate to trample on everyone who’s on her way to success. But nobody ever thought she could be murdered, especially in these circumstances.

No. It was almost impossible to electrocute someone these days, unless you were the governor of Texas. To do it on a frozen lake, in front of dozens of witnesses, was lunacy. Someone had been insane enough to try. Someone had been brilliant enough to succeed.

Armand Gamache comes from Montreal to solve the case. He’s accompanied by his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Gamache is rather happy to visit Three Pines and reacquaint himself with Clara and her husband Peter or Gabriel and Olivier, the gay couple who operate the B&B.

It is a classic whodunit but the setting does everything. It’s Christmas time and the descriptions of Québec at this time of year make you want to hop on the next flight and see it by yourself.

Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard to even distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.

Armand Gamache is an engaging character, a middle-aged chief inspector who’s been married to his wife for a few decades.

They’d both swelled since they’d first met. There was no way either would get into their wedding clothes. But they’d grown in other ways as well, and Gamache figured it was a good deal. If life meant growth in all directions, it was fine with him.

Thankfully for him, his private life is stable and he’s good at solving crimes. However, he made himself enemies in the Sûreté du Québec in a previous case. These bigwigs are still after him and not against using inside intelligence and underhanded methods to undermine his reputation. This plot thread started in Still Life, goes on in Fatal Grace and is not solved. This is something Louise Penny shares with Anne Perry: a brilliant and humane investigator in a stable relationship but not always in the good graces of his hierarchy. Gamache is one of these intuitive investigators that make the salt of this brand of crime fiction.

Gamache was the best of them, the smartest and bravest and strongest because he was willing to go into his own head alone, and open all the doors there, and enter all the dark rooms. And make friends with what he found there. And he went into the dark, hidden rooms in the minds of others. The minds of killers. And he faced down whatever monsters came at him. He went to places Beauvoir had never even dreamed existed.

Louise Penny writes in English but her prose reflects the geography of her novels and a lot of French words are laced in her English prose. And for a French speaking reader with English as a second language like me, it’s a delight. You find expressions like a one-vache village (in full English, a one-cow village) or sentences like I don’t mind tea,’ Clara raised her mug to them, ‘even tisane. (tisane means herbal tea) or they drove over the Champlain bridge and onto the autoroute (autoroute means motorway) I don’t know how Anglophone-only readers deal with this but for me, it’s a pleasure and it reflects how closely interlaced the two worlds and the two languages are in this part of Québec. But some habits are definitely French:

Gamache held the chair for Em and looked after the young man going to the cappuccino machine to make their bowls of café au lait.

They’re drinking café au lait in bowls. Typically French and French Canadian, apparently. Last Christmas, we had an Australian student at home. She was glad to see that, as she had learnt in French class back in Perth, we really do drink coffee and tea in bowls in France!

A Fatal Grace is a good read for a winter afternoon around Christmas and I’ll continue with the series.


  1. December 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    I have this one, picked up cheap somewhere along the way. Do you think Gamache is a good policeman? It’s the new question I”m asking myself.


    • December 23, 2016 at 6:49 pm

      Well I’m not a police officer si it’s hard to judge.
      I’d say yes, he’s an Adamsberg kind of policeman. He’s attentive to details and attuned to people. He’s good at reading people.

      Liked by 1 person

    • December 23, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      He’s not your ‘flashy’ type who solves crimes with flashes of inspiration. he finds the answers through thoughtful reflection and his knowledge of human nature.


      • December 23, 2016 at 9:51 pm

        Exactly. He’s attentive to others.


  2. December 23, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    I read “Still Life” too, and enjoyed it. I agree that the setting and the local quirks are the best part of the book.


    • December 23, 2016 at 6:47 pm

      There’s a lot of warmth in her books despite the murders. She makes you want to visit Three Pines


  3. December 23, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    This was the first Louise Penny book that I read and I loved the sarcasm about the wonderful sport of curling, as well as some observations about the differences between Anglos and Francophones (from amongst Gamache’s staff). It certainly encouraged me to read more of her books. It’s certainly not cosy crime fiction, and yet there’s a lot of comfort to be had from her books.


    • December 23, 2016 at 9:01 pm

      I wonder how she came with this original way of killing someone.
      It is rather sarcastic at times and yes it’s interesting to see the jabs and cultural differences between Anglos and Francophones. It’s something I mentioned in my billet about Still Life so I didn’t want to repeat myself.

      The comparison with Anne Perry is valid. Both explore sordid sides of humans and in case of Perry, society. And yet the books are warm because the recurring characters are engaging and with a strong sense of justice. I think they appeal to our inner child who’s still there, with a strong desire to see the bad punished and the good on the right side of the law. Yet there’s no denying the ugliness which fulfils the adult’s need of plausible.


  4. December 23, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Another fan for Louise Penny here. I have enjoyed every one in the series i’ve read – still have a few more to go. They get darker as the series progresses (those forces in the police force that want to bring him down become more evident).What doesn’t change is Penny’s ability as you say to immediately make you want to get on a plane to stay in Three Pines


    • December 23, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      Oh it’s good to know the next volumes are good too.
      How is it for you, all these French words in the middle of sentences. Does it bother you?

      Have you ever read Anne Perry?


  5. December 24, 2016 at 9:39 am

    I recall making a note of this author after you reviewed the first in the series. It sounds as if these novels have a strong sense of place, always an appealing aspect in this type of fiction.


    • December 24, 2016 at 9:59 am

      She can become one of those writers to turn to when you want to read something good.


  6. December 31, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    It seems to me that the more we read detective novels the more we focus on setting, the ambience of the crime-solving procedures, the location and its little idiosyncrasies. I haven’t heard of Louise Penny before, thank you for reviewing her.


    • December 31, 2016 at 11:11 pm

      You’re right. I also love to read crime fiction for the way it shows a society. It remains a way to write about topics harder to evoke in usual novels.

      Liked by 1 person

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