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