A Fatal Grace, Part 1

A Fatal Grace, Part 1


I started working with Louise in October 2006, after the editor who had bought her first three books left Minotaur for another company. At the time, only Still Life had been published. A Fatal Grace was in bound galleys, and The Cruelest Month was a completed manuscript in search of a title.

Since I needed to read three books in a row, it was lucky that I loved them from the start. Although Louise had me from the acknowledgments at the beginning of Still Life, there came a scene in A Fatal Grace that gave me chills in a way that only the very best manuscripts ever have. (I describe that scene in the recap below.) I even remember where I was when I read it. In those days I had an hour-long commute on the train. I know that I started reading the galleys on the train on a Tuesday night, then continued on Wednesday morning, when we always have our editorial meetings. By the time I got to that meeting, I couldn’t stop talking about how amazing Louise was, except perhaps to ignore everyone else and keep reading more of the story.

When I’m asked what makes her books so great, I usually fall back on a quote from Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” That’s how I feel about Louise’s novels.

I believe I didn’t meet Louise and her husband, Michael, in person until Malice Domestic in Crystal City, VA, in the spring of 2008. By that time, Still Life had won many awards (including the Anthony, Arthur Ellis, Barry, Dilys, and New Blood Dagger) for Best First Novel, but not the Agatha; and we didn’t want to jinx anything by expecting her to win Best Novel for A Fatal Grace. I remember how thrilling it was when she did win—but what I had forgotten, until Louise mentioned it recently, was that the awards banquet happened to fall on my birthday. Now that she reminds me—and how remarkable for her to remember—I know that she and Michael insisted on taking me to lunch on that Saturday, and made more of a fuss about my birthday than they did about her chances of winning the Agatha. They were as warm and brilliant and funny as you might imagine from reading Louise’s books, and it’s been a joy to work with her ever since.

Recap (through Chapter 21)

The first lines of A Fatal Grace foretell the death of the nastiest woman in Three Pines: “Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift….” The doomed CC has written a self-help book that prattles about love and enlightenment, even though she is actually like the Snow Queen from the fairytale who pierces everyone’s hearts with ice.

Meanwhile, in “the snow globe that was Three Pines,” CC’s 14-year-old daughter, Crie, has sewn her own chiffon snowflake costume for her school’s Christmas pageant, “to surprise Mommy.” She has been on a diet for a month and is sure her mother will notice soon. Except her mother doesn’t bother to show up.

Clara Morrow and her friend Myrna drive to Montreal, where Clara is dying to see the Christmas windows at Ogilvy’s department store that have enchanted her since childhood. She and her handsome husband, Peter, have been starving artists in Three Pines for years, although his precisely detailed paintings have finally started to sell. No one wants to buy Clara’s wilder depictions of warrior uteruses (!) and melting trees.

Hearing that CC knows important gallery owner Denis Fortin, Clara timidly asks if she would mind showing him her portfolio—which CC disdainfully throws in the trash. “Very annoying,” she says to her lover, photographer Saul Petrov. “Imagine asking me for a favor?” CC has much more important things to do: There’s a sale at Ogilvy’s and she wants to buy a special pair of boots made of baby sealskin with metal claws.

Clara’s joy at the Christmas windows is disrupted by a filthy pile of blankets that turns out to be a beggar throwing up. Disgusted, Clara hastens inside to the book launch for her neighbor, Ruth Zardo, the bitter but brilliant old poet whose friends from Three Pines turn up to support her.

On the escalators at Ogilvy’s, Clara passes CC, who says to the man beside her, “I’m so sorry, Denis, that you think Clara’s art is amateur and banal.” It’s a heart-stopping moment. Devastated, Clara shuffles out of the store and sees the stinking beggar she’d ignored on the way in. Impulsively, Clara gives a package of food she’s just bought to the bag lady, who grasps her wrist and says, “I have always loved your art, Clara.” Whoa. This was the moment when I started to feel as if the top of my head was being taken off.

A few days later it is Christmas Eve in Three Pines, with shortbread stars (Louise’s books always make me hungry) and carolers and a midnight service at St. Thomas’s church, where a child starts to sing with angelic purity. The singer is CC’s daughter, wearing a grotesque pink sundress but with bliss on her face. After the service, the whole village can hear CC berating Crie as a “stupid, stupid girl. You humiliated me. They were laughing at you, you know.” CC’s gutless father barely utters a protest.

When Saul turns up at the Bistro on Christmas, Myrna invites him to the community breakfast and curling match on the following day. It’s a perfect setting for the last job Saul intends to do for CC, who wants pictures of herself “frolicking among the natives at Christmas. If possible he had to get shots of the locals looking at CC with wonder and affection.” A pretty tall order.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté and his wife, Reine-Marie, make their first appearance in the book on the day after Christmas, when they have a tradition of reviewing unsolved cases. “If I was murdered,” says Gamache, “I’d like to think the case wouldn’t just sit unsolved. Someone would make an extra effort.” (I love this man.) Reine-Marie notices that one of the cases is new: There was a bag lady who had hung out at the bus station for years—but was strangled outside of Ogilvy’s department store on the day Clara saw her there. Astoundingly, a copy of Ruth’s new book, signed “You stink, love Ruth,” was found with the body.

Then the phone rings, and the duty officer for Three Pines tells Gamache there has been a murder. So much for a quiet Boxing Day. Within minutes Gamache and his second-in-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are on their way to Three Pines, to investigate the very odd death of CC de Poitiers.

CC’s murder seems impossible: She was electrocuted at the curling match, in the middle of a frozen lake in front of dozens of witnesses. After Gamache gathers his team in the old railway station, Beauvoir recaps the only way CC’s murder could have worked: “A: she had to be standing in water; B: she had to have taken off her gloves; C: she had to touch something electrified; and D: she had to be wearing metal on the bottom of her boots.” Sure, nobody liked CC, but who hated her enough—and had the expertise—to pull off something like that?

Then a new team member arrives unexpectedly: Agent Yvette Nichol—”the rancid, wretched, petty little woman who’d almost ruined their last case”—apparently sent by the Superintendent of the Sûreté. Gamache is furious to see her, and knows that his enemies at Headquarters are still working against him.

With or without the unwelcome Nichol, the team has much to investigate: Where is Saul and what photos might he have taken of the curling match? Why does the coroner find excess niacin in CC’s body? Can it be possibly be coincidence that CC’s book, Be Calm, has the same name as the meditation center Bea Mayer, known as Mother, runs in Three Pines? After Gamache admires The Three Graces, Clara’s painting of Mother and the two other elderly women who are her best friends in Three Pines, she tells him about her poisonous encounter with CC at Ogilvy’s—and he quietly adds Clara’s name to the long list of suspects.

Favorite Quote

Gamache says to Clara, “When someone stabs you it’s not your fault that you feel pain.”

Discussion Questions

1. If the village of Three Pines truly existed, would you want to live there? Why or why not? How does Christmas bring out the best or the worst in any of the villagers?

2. Who is your favorite character in the book so far?

3. In Louise’s books I am always stopping to admire wonderful images or jokes or observations (or descriptions of food!). Were there any lines that particularly struck you in Part I?

4. What do you think of Ruth’s idea that “most people, while claiming to hate authority, actually yearned for someone to take charge”?

5. Gamache tells Lemieux, “All the mistakes I’ve made have been because I’ve assumed something and then acted as though it was fact.” Have you ever made important assumptions that turned out not to be true?

6. What interests you most about the two murder victims, CC and the bag lady known only as Elle, and the way Gamache conducts his investigation?

Discussion on “A Fatal Grace, Part 1”

Do you have a Fatal Grace characters list posted? I’m having difficulty locating it.
Thank you for your time.
Laurel Lown
Waynesville, NC
(Western NC Mountains)

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I couldn’t figure out how Elle knew about Clara’s work, to tell Clara, “I’ve always loved your work Clara”. What message did I not get? Obviously it wasn’t black and white on the page. Whatever it was I freely admit it was over my head

So sorry being late to this discussion!

I have to ask, am I the only one besides Gamache who can’t understand all of what Billy Williams is saying? 🙂 Chapter 37, their conversation during the rescue…? I can understand him at some other places. But I’m at a loss here.

(BTW – Absolutely love having the Billy Williams character!)

Help, Paul Hochman! Another spammer infiltrating our discussion group. Shame on you iaccrwlcj! (Notice this CRETIN does not even use a proper name to spam our group!) Coward! Imbecile!

I guess I am ready to tackle the last couple of questions. Will start with this one for now;
5. Gamache tells Lemieux, “All the mistakes I’ve made have been because I’ve assumed something and then acted as though it was fact.” Have you ever made important assumptions that turned out not to be true?

When I first read this question, I couldn’t think, at first of any times I’d made an assumption that turned out not to be true. Now that I’ve thought a bit more about it, there are a couple of examples I’m going to share, although they are kind of embarrassing.
1. I was an undergraduate student who was a stickler for getting to class early. One time, I got to a classroom, where the class was just getting out, and I made a couple of assumptions: 1. That the very mature looking male who was approaching me was the professor, and 2. That he was also going to be the instructor for the class that was supposed to be in that room next. Well, as it turned out, the guy was not a professor, but a foreign exchange student, and since I had shown myself to be friendly, apparently I was fair game as far as he was concerned. For weeks if not months, I found myself being stalked and having to hide if I saw him coming first.
2. When I was teaching an English class at a community college, I was required to have a syllabus and course assignment ready for the class on the first day it met. The course assignment pages I would pass out had all the reading assignments from the required text. I of course assumed that if there was a change in text book that the department chair would send out a memo. WRONG! The first night of class, after I had greeted the class and given my speech about what would be required work for the semester, I held up what I believed to be the book that they would need. Was I ever surprised and chagrined when one of the students piped up and said” That’s not right! THIS is the book that the bookstore was selling!”
Sure enough, it was a new edition of the text, so that meant that my entire handout for reading assignments was wrong. I had spent HOURS getting that ready, so I was pretty upset with our Chair, and found I wasn’t the only one . Several of us put in a written request to him, that in the future, if there was a change in the required text, whether it was a new edition or other different text book, that he would let us know BEFORE the semester started! To his credit, that never happened again, but just thinking about that experience still makes me angry.

I am a long time Louise Penny / Gamache fan; after picking up Bury Your Dead, the only book of the series on the library shelf. Then having to beg, borrow and buy the other books in the series, because I was hooked. I only stumbled on this discussion yesterday, why didn’t I find it sooner !
I’m not sure if I could learn to cope with winter in Three Pines, however I should love to be a regular visitor. In my imagination I can walk into the village and find everything; wonderful descripive writing Louise.
Favourite character, Gamache and following behind, Reine-Marie. I am fascintated by Ruth and her ‘opposite’, Myrna, in fact just about all the regulars.
The food, oh the food. I long taste it and listen to the conversations at the table. I want to know more about the quotes, who wrote the poems and can I find the books in a library and read more.
Ruth’s statement re no-one wanting to take responsibilty is spot on. A huge generalization, but most of us look to someone else to take charge. You see it worldwide in many situations and lack of personal responsibility is an international ‘disease’.
The final two questions, I don’t yet have an opinion on.
Coincidentally [and with winter just about here], I am rereading the series and had just started on Dead Cold aka A Fatal Grace.

I would love to express my thoughts and views with everyone, however, I would have lots of rewrites even before I was able to get a point across. I think I can verbalize better than writing.
This book was very difficult for me to read, because of the abuse of a child. I love all the main characters. Louise is brilliant with the psychology of her characters. I can relate with all of them, and that’s what makes me a better person. Understanding, is a great gift. If I can understand, the why’s, then I have a better ability to relate to the world around me. Louise has a wonderful ability to create character who are so full of personalities. I loved Jane in Still Life, was sorry to lose this loving character. When I first read Still Life, I went around telling everyone to read it. It felt so fresh and so very Real. Thank all of you for sharing you thoughts. It is always interesting to get others perspectives. Karen I Ford you express yourself very well on paper. A special thank you. Louise if you read these comments thank you so much for writing these wonderful books. I would love to go into a real Jane’s house, but I think I live in Clara’s house and feel so cozy and hungry in the Bistro.

Is anyone keeping track of the character descriptions/development of the recurring individuals in each book? We now know that Louise Penny has foreshadowed many events in later books, and for those of us re-reading, there is often the shock of recognition.

I am loving the re-reads! I started reading Louise’s books a year or so after “Still Life”came out, so it has been a while, and I have forgotten many very important details – some of which don’t actually become important until later in the series. Which brings me to a question/comment.

While loving the re-read, I am not loving the discussion. As I re-read the books, I am noticing many themes that carry through the series. Some of them start small and grow over time; some are quotations, or even book titles, that re-appear. I am amazed by how deftly Louise has woven these threads through. I would really like to discuss this! However, that would make for spoilers – and I don’t want to post anything that would spoil it for first-time readers.

Would it be possible to have a section of this discussion that is more free-form, where spoilers are permitted? For those of us who are re-reading, rather than reading for the first time, it would give us the freedom to discuss overarching motifs and storylines. I could say things like, “I didn’t realize that XXX was happening from the very beginning of the series,” or “I remember where XXX’s tendency to XXX leads, later in the series.”

What do you think?

I do live in Three Pines, and partly because of the food. Gamache is my favorite character because I have learned so much from him (thank you Louise). I like Ruth because in spite of her immediate presence, she cares deeply for people. I was affected in this section by how she orchestrated the care for CC. Taking charge for Ruth means compassion. I’ve made mistakes, and learned from how Gamache dealt with his own. CC and Elle are so different, and both need to be seen with depth. Louise shows that. I believe Elle as Clara does. I dislike CC intensely, but who cannot identify with her somewhat, and learn from that? These books have depth, and I am so glad to be rereading them.

That’s a great point you make about Ruth, David. She does care deeply for people, and she was the one orchestrating care for CC. The fact that so many people ran to help CC after they noticed her fall, and in spite of the fact that many of them despised her personally, they still considered her life worth saving. As Clara tells Gamache after saying CC didn’t deserve to be murdered, and he then asks what she did deserve, Clara says that CC deserved to be left alone. That is, she would have been, to use an English colloquialism, put “in Coventry.” She deserved to be treated as a social outcast, so she would see that all of her machinations and cruel treatment of her family brought disgrace, not fame or fortune. Ruth shows us that someone can be outspoken and downright rude at time, but still have compassion for her fellow human beings.

I have come to realize that I am finally beginning to understand Ruth. I can’t pick out one comment that has been the “aha” moment because it has been cumulative. As I have read and reread the discussions of these first two books, I have found myself thinking, “Yes!” “No!” “I’m confused!” “That reminds me of when Ruth said or did…” “That reminds me of when I …” I have read all the books several times each, but I am only now seeing why Ruth is so important, just the way she is at any given moment. Louise Penny really is so insightful and at the same time such a wonderful writer. And, she’s so good at building a sense of trust and patience in her readers. We don’t always know where we’re going or why, but we keep going with her. It has been infinitely worth it so far. No matter how uncomfortable it is sometimes, I would follow her anywhere, even to Ruth’s house.

Meg R, I’ll take up that challenge–at least for the first part of the book, as far as what Penny tells us(or has other characters say) about Ruth.


1. (From Chapter Three) We get thoughts from Clara about Ruth:
“Normally Ruth’s slim volumes of poetry were slipped to an oblivious public following a launch at the bistro in Three Pines. But something astounding had happened. This elderly, wizened, bitter poet from Three Pines had won the Governor General’s Award. Surprised the hell out of everyone. Not because she didn’t deserve it. Clara knew her poems were stunning
Who hurt you once so far beyond repair
that you would greet each overture with curling lip?
It was not always so.
No, Ruth Zardo deserved the prize. It was just shocking that anyone else knew it”(p.24 paperback).
From this, I think the key words Clara has to describe Ruth are elderly, wizened, and bitter. We know she uses a cane, so maybe that explains why Clara would think of her as wizened. As for being bitter, I do wonder if the words in that poem refer to Ruth herself.
2. At the signing in Ogilvy’s(Chapter Four).
Not only has Clara had to deal with the smell of the ‘wretched bum,” but she’d walked through the perfumerie area of the store spraying her with “cloying smells”. What’s the first thing Ruth says to Clara? “It’s about fuckin’ time. . . you look like a bag lady. . . And you stink.” (Of course, I should note, she”gave and received a kiss on each cheek” in between the bag lady statement and her saying to Clara, ” You stink,” so probably getting that close to Clara, she really did experience the results too many perfumes being mingled on one person). I’m thinking that since Penny notes that Ruth gave and received a kiss on each cheek, we note that (1) Ruth initiated the intimacy with her friend, and then(2) allowed Clara to touch her face on the cheeks, too. So at least we know Ruth is not a germophobe. She may be a crusty old broad, with a wicked tongue at times, but she’s still able to give and receive affection from a friend.

After Ruth tells Clara she will sign the book for her, we see Penny describe Ruth as “Tall and dignified, leaning on her cane for support. . .”. Since we’ve discussed(or I have, anyway) the conversation between Ruth and Gabri in Ogilvies, I won’t repeat it here. But then Clara notices that Gabri is holding a different book. He tells her it’s CC Poitier’s book, and points to the remainder bin. (Apparently this is the Canadian version of Bargain books). Ruth , we are told, then, “snorted then stopped herself, realizing it was probably just a matter of days before her small collection of exquisitely crafted poems joined CC’s shit in that literary coffin.”
A short while after, as the “Three Graces” are discussing CC’s Li Bien philosophy, Kaye says, ” And her pile of crap is probably higher than yours. . . I didn’t think it was possible,’ she said to Ruth, who looked at her hero with delight.”
Here we see that Ruth, herself master of the put-down quip, is also appreciative of that quality in someone else.

In my wildest dreams I own a book store in Scotland, with the food coming from the B. & B in Three Pines. I guess that means I would like village life. Enjoyed the humor and laughed out loud a couple of times rereading “A Fatal Grace”.

In re “The Three Graces”:
–When I read the scene this time, between Gamache and Clara, as she’s showing him her art, in particular her painting of the three old grande dames of the village, I found myself tingling when Clara told Gamache, she’d left a space, a crack, because that way the light could get in. WOW. I mean, it just hit me how Louise Penny has used that concept throughout her books. (And of course, that’s the title of one of the later books). I think this is an example of Clara’s intuition. I don’t think she knew about El or her connection to the “Three Graces,” but she instinctively knew someone was missing.

–About the three women and why they tried to make Gamache think they’d killed CC. I believe we get hints of that when there’s reference to cowardice and having not done the right thing before, and wanting to do that now. I think the women feel responsible for Crie, and horrible that they did nothing to help her when CC was berating her after the church service. It looks to me as though they equate that verbal thrashing of CC’s as the thing that sent Crie over the edge, to kill her mother, and that they could have prevented that by standing up to CC at the time, but didn’t. Now, they have a chance to save El’s grand-daughter, by presenting themselves as the killers, leaving Gamache a letter of confession, and going out on the ice to die.
In re the conclusion:
–Gamache, his own encounter with a being whom he thought of as God, and how Billy Williams comes into that equasion. Gamache cannot understand, for some reason, anything that Billy says to him, yet others, including his own wife, Reine-Marie, can. I just love that ending scene where she gives Armand the bag with the lemon meringue pie and the poem on the napkin. Apparently, what’s on the napkin are the same words that the old man in the cafe wrote on the board:
Where there is love, there is courage
Where there is courage, there is peace
Where there is peace, there is God
And when you have God, you have everything.

I just love that poem, and that Penny ends her book with Gamache saying,
” I have everything.”
WOW. just–WOW.
And of course, now I have to ask–Who WAS the old man in the cafe that Gamache met that day? How does Billy Williams know about the lemon-meringue pie, and the poem that was written on the blackboard?

Thank you Meg! I loved reading your ‘lists’. Wow lots of insights and things to ponder. May have to re-read the re-read. 🙂

Thanks, Cathryne and Connie. Some place I started jotting a “Be Calm” list & will try to add that in next few days.

A CHALLENGE: Does someone – who has the time – want to take up the gauntlet and go back and try to list/track just what Louise Penny has told us about Ruth in this book? Wish I had taken notes on her at the same time I did on the three graces. I’m curious & maybe we can get a better understanding about her if we picked up the clue crumb trail that Ms. Penny’s leaving for us!

I would have a hard time with this. I have read the entire series and would blubber way too much to discern the trail.

I kind of prefer to know Ruth by absorption. She simply enters my brain little by little and each drop absorbed is like a small gem.


He observes:

“It ached of intimacy, of a private moment caught in women’s lives. It captured their friendsip and their dependence on each other. It sang of love and a caring that went beyond pleasant lunches and the remembrance of birthdays. Gamache felt as though he was looking into each of their souls, and the combination of the three was almost too much to bear.”

After this, Armand asks why she hasn’t painted Ruth. Okay. I’ done. Have two more lists started, but fingers tired and I want to get second half of book read as I prepare for influx of our clan to celebrate Mother’s Day with Mum.
BTW: Happy Mother’s Day to all of you Mom’s out there!


Again, remember Gamache thought something was missing. The discussion with Clara even caused him to write her name on his list. What, who, would best fit the space where the light is?

I’m always fascinated by the mixture of poetic and practical wisdom in Louise’s books. On the one hand, Gamache’s discussion with Clara about the empty space in the painting and the crack in everything resonates profoundly throughout the series. On the other hand, I believe it’s his recognition of Clara’s reaction on the escalator at Ogilivy’s (“If someone stabs you it’s not your fault that you feel pain”) that causes him to add Clara’s name to the list of suspects.

Meg, I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Emilie, Kaye, and Bea as the Three Graces. Thanks for taking the time and effort to organize your ideas and present them.


MOTHER BEA is the youngest of the three at 76(? can’t read my chicken scratches here). Bea appears at book launch with “red and wild hair, a soft plump body ill-concealed beneath a voluminous amber caftan and chunky jewelry.”

* At the book launch, Clara notices that Bea was “overtaken by some emotion Clara couldn’t identify. Fury? Fear? Extreme concern of some sort. . . . and then it was replaced by Mother’s peaceful, cheery face, all pink and wrinkled and open.” Bea has just seen CC’s book. Seems to be quiet adept at quickly masking facial expressions. Hmmmm??

*Bea has studied Asian religions and practices and owns and runs a yoga and meditation center called Be Calm.

*At the reveillon, Bea walks out of the room when Gabri starts reading from CC’s book.

*Bea also spends Christmas Eve night at Emilie’s and hears the Tchaikovsky playing as she’s in bed. Bea has “loved it and (music) still breaks her heart. Bea is grieving too and tries to manage her pain by practicing her mantra, “Be Calm” — but is unable to do so because it has been “stolen and twisted by CC.” — For what is Bea grieving? Why does the concerto still break her heart?

* At community breakfast.Bea ‘plays mother” and pours coffee and tea and her own strange mixture – a tea or tisane? Bea also curls with her team.

* Bea’s the one who explains curling to Gamache and Jean-Guy. She’s also know for ‘Clearing the House.” Jean-Guy thinks “Mother is hiding something.” p. 134

*Bea’s interviewed in her meditation center by Armand and Beauvoir. She tells them of CC’s OCD w/ re-aligning everything in studio. She then says that CC is/was “in pain”, had come to the center once before and was “unhappy”. Mother says that CC “cobbled together a bumpy, pitted, muddy spiritual path. It reminded me of Frankenstein. She cannibalized all sorts of faiths and beliefs and came up with that Li Bien. The word ‘crap’ was implied.” p. 147-148,

* Mother also mention’s CC’s ball – central image of Li Bien. This sounds a lot like the glass ball that Peter gave to Clara as Christmas gift! p. 148

*Clara paints Mother Bea as “Faith”. So Faith and Charity support Hope in the big painting.(Deep stuff there Ms. Clara!)


Beatrice appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy. She takes over from the poet Virgil in leading the way into Paradise. The name implies beatific love.

Our Bea also tried to lead her friends to the next life.

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