This is the last of the detective/crime fiction books that I will be reading this year. So I was a little disappointed that Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace was not as good as I hoped. I am not entirely sure why I did not enjoy it, but I’ll try and explain it below. The novel, the second in Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, takes place in a small rural village south of Montreal. A woman whom nobody liked, even her husband and daughter, is murdered in what seems like an impossible way. Gamache is called to the scene and is forced to fight the cold of a Quebec winter, a tight-knit community that is hiding some big secrets, and some political maneuvering in his department.
This last point leads into one of my major problems with the book. Penny keeps dropping hints about unrest in the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force. I have a strong feeling that most of these would be explained by reading Penny`s first book, Still Life. However, this annoyed me because I feel like books in a crime fiction series should be able to stand on their own. And, to be clear, A Fatal Grace makes sense and works on almost every level without any prior knowledge of the previous book. However, I found the constant hints and name-drops became annoying, particularly near the end of the novel where nothing really comes of it (except for a big revelation about one officer`s loyalties which I won`t spoil for you).
I think my second problem with the novel is that I just could not get into the setting and tone. There is a fair amount of nostalgia for a more idyllic rural life in this novel. Three Pines, the small village, could be a town in a snow globe. Its inhabitants all live in close harmony and there is plenty of Christmas cheer and community throughout. Of course, CC de Poitiers, the murder victim, stands outside the community and lives in a large Victorian estate looming over the village (okay I just have to say that this was a poor decision. Do we really have to rehash Gothic cliches?). Gamache, the central character of the series, is a likeable, noble-hearted investigator who is content with his position and seems to have no faults of any kind (except for being a genuinely good person). Now I’m not saying he has to be a hard-boiled detective with a crippling vice or a mean streak or a genuine case of misanthropy. But he comes across as too good to be true. I kept thinking he should just move to Three Pines and he would fit right in (he even fantasizes about this at one point).
Finally, I just was not on board with the little community of Three Pines. There is way too much nostalgia for a more relaxed pace of life and a tight-knit community where people don’t knock on doors. The list of characters includes a gay couple who own and operate a Bed and Breakfast, a painter couple, a Governor-General’s Award winning poet, and three elderly women who live in close harmony. Where are the people who make things run here? Is everyone in the village just affluent bourgeois? In a way, this is what makes A Fatal Grace appealing and is probably part of the book’s success. I just couldn’t get into it.
So, I would possibly recommend this book for hardcore detective fiction fans. But others should look elsewhere.
Penny, Louise. A Fatal Grace. New York: Minotaur Books, 2006. Print.