Murder in Rural Quebec (And a Dollop of Nostalgia): A Fatal Grace

352921This 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.

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What Happens When You Don’t Follow Along: And Then There Were None

and-then-there-wereI had a problem with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and it has nothing to do with the novel or Christie’s craftsmanship. Instead, it has to do with my own unwillingness to abide by the rules of the mystery/crime genre. From the get-go, Christie is clear that the 10 characters who go to Soldier Island are the only 10 characters that will be on the island throughout the novel. One of these characters also happens to be a killer who is slowly knocking off each other character one by one. However, throughout the novel I simply assumed that the killer was not one of the ten and instead was somehow coming to and from a boat to kill them. Hence, I missed most of the suspense and thrill of And Then There Were None. Unfortunately, now that I’ve read the end, I can’t go back and start over because I already know who the villain is. This just goes to show me that the mystery/crime novel genre is probably not the one for me because I have a hard time buying into the genre’s conventions.

Christie’s novel is a masterpiece though. Even though I’m not a fan of the genre, by the end of And Then There Were None, it is easy to see just how carefully put together the whole narrative is. If you are a much more careful reader than I am, you might be able to pick out the killer and solve the crimes even before you finish, but doing so would be quite amazing because Christie is very careful to cover her tracks efficiently. The central hook in this story is that each of the 10 characters has a shady past that none is willing to openly talk about. It quickly becomes clear that they have all committed murder but within the boundaries of law. For example, one character knows that he will be sending a man to his doom during the war, but does so anyways, while a second character refuses to have a pregnant single girl in her house and sends her out into the cold night without any mercy. The killer, then, is motivated by some kind of sense of seeking justice outside of the law. This plot setup makes for wonderful tension between the characters as each suspects the other of being the villain. Of course, if I had bought into Christie`s setup, it would have been that much more tense.

Christie utilises a third-person limited viewpoint but allows readers to experience different characters’ thoughts throughout the narrative. This is a very effective technique to flesh out the tension of the plot, but it also quite effective at covering up who the real killer is because that will not be revealed until the final pages of the novel itself. In these pages, the killer confesses their crimes and carefully explains how everything was accomplished so that it is almost as if Christie takes readers by the hands and leads us through the plot. It was at this point that I realized my mistake and regretted my unwillingness to suspend belief.

On a weird sidenote that came up as I was looking for a cover image, apparently this book was first published as Ten Little Niggers in the U.K. When it was published in the US, it was re-titled And Then There Were None although a number of editions were also titled Ten Little Indians. Talk about politically incorrect rhymes/titles!

I would recommend And Then There Were None to fans of crime fiction because it is an outstanding mystery plot. But if you don’t enjoy this genre, it’s probably not worth your time.

Christie, Agatha. And Then There Were None. 1939. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004. Print.