INTRODUCTION BY HOPE DELLON
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.
Chapters 1-21: 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.
Chapter 22-End: Clues and questions and suspects continue to pile up for Gamache and his team. Having learned that CC de Poitiers, who claimed to be the daughter of Eleanor and Henri de Poitiers, invented both her name and her past (Eleanor de Poitiers, better known as Eleanor of Aquitaine, actually died in 1204), Gamache needs to find out who CC really was. Are there any significant clues to be found in the video cassette of The Lion in Winter that turned up in CC’s garbage after the murder?
Meanwhile, Gamache is astonished when Clara proudly shows him the Li Bien ornament Peter gave her for Christmas, which is exactly like the ball CC supposedly used as the basis for her garbled philosophy. The glass ball is painted with three pine trees, the word Noël, and a single capital letter, L. Was it the picture of the trees that prompted CC to buy the monstrous old Hadley house in Three Pines? Awkwardly, Peter is forced to confess that while he meant to buy Clara something for Christmas this year, he actually found the ball in the Williamsburg dump.
When Gamache meets Émilie Longpré—age 82, captain of the curling team, and one of Clara’s Three Graces—and her dog, Henri, on an early morning walk, she tells him about an encounter with CC at Mother’s meditation center, where CC arrogantly proclaimed that since she was calling her own book and company Be Calm, Mother would have to change the name of her center or perhaps close it altogether. After breakfast, the tiny Émilie gives Gamache & co. a curling lesson that convinces even Beauvoir, who has always scoffed at curling as a sport, that it’s a lot harder than it looks. And Gamache, who finally grasps what it meant when the 78-year-old Mother loudly “cleared the house” at the curling match, suddenly knows how the murderer got away with it.
The questions about CC’s mother keep circling back to the Three Graces. Do they know who the L of the Li Bien ball was, or could it possibly even be one of them? And what might 92-year-old Kaye Thompson, who was sitting next to CC at the match, have seen as she was murdered?
When Saul’s photos are developed, they somehow do not include any shots from the time of the murder. And as eager as Saul seems to be to start a new, better life in Three Pines, he still has one undeveloped roll of film that he hastily throws in the fireplace when Gamache and his team visit him at the chalet he has rented.
With the help of an idea from Clara about the discarded video, the case seems to be coming together, when a raging fire breaks out at Saul’s chalet, and the unlikely trio of Gamache, Beauvoir, and Agent Nichol try to rescue him. Émilie finally tells Gamache the heartbreaking truth about CC’s mother, and the Three Graces prepare to pay the price for what they have done. And then Gamache suddenly realizes there is one last horrible secret in CC’s family.
The book ends at New Year’s, with Reine-Marie’s first visit to Three Pines. Both of them know that the plots against Gamache are growing more sinister, but as they drive home:
In the rearview mirror Armand Gamache could see Three Pines. He got out of the car and stared down at the village, each home glowing with warm and beckoning light, promising protection against a world sometimes too cold. He closed his eyes and felt his racing heart calm.
“Are you all right?” Reine-Marie’s mittened hand slipped into his.
“I’m more than all right.” He smiled. “I have everything.”
Gamache says to Clara, “When someone stabs you it’s not your fault that you feel pain.”
Gamache: “I knew then I was in the company of people who loved not only books, but words. Spoken, written, the power of words.”
I am not sure how many times I’ve read A Fatal Grace, but I still find it as extraordinary as I did back in 2006. I think it’s magnificent on so many levels: as a complex and masterful detective story, as a glorious character study, and as an exploration of universal hopes and fears. I love that it can be hilarious one minute and heartbreaking the next.
I also love the way Louise focuses on the power of words, from the literal handwriting on more than one wall, to the hidden meanings of names like Mother, Elle, and Crie (what kind of parents would name a child that?), to the ways that words can kill or heal. I also marvel that someone like me, who is at least as much of a skeptic as Jean-Guy Beauvoir, can find myself wondering about such mysteries as lemon meringue pie.
- 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?
- Who is your favorite character in the book so far?
- 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?
- What do you think of Ruth’s idea that “most people, while claiming to hate authority, actually yearned for someone to take charge”?
- 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?
- 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?
- There are so many clues hidden in plain sight in A Fatal Grace, I lost count at 6 or 7 (all of which I missed the first time through). Did you spot any of them, and did you solve any of the various puzzles before Gamache did?
- What do you make of Gamache’s relationships with the different members of his team, from Beauvoir to Nichol?
- How do you feel about The Three Graces?
- Near the end, Gamache says, “This whole case has been about belief and the power of the word.” I’ll say. What are the ways in which words have power?
- Speaking of belief, what do you make of the apparent brushes with God: the beggar who loved Clara’s art (which Em maintains she had never seen); Gamache finding God in a diner eating lemon meringue pie; Em’s road worker with the sign saying “Ice Ahead”; Billy Williams, etc.?
- Do you agree with Gamache in Chapter 33 that “when you’ve seen the worst you appreciate the best?”
385 replies on “Series Re-Read: A Fatal Grace”
Who was Yvette Nichol calling secretly? What is she up to? She still acts weird! Something is not right with her.
Do you have a Fatal Grace characters list posted? I’m having difficulty locating it.
Thank you for your time.
(Western NC Mountains)
Not sure this thread is still active but I’ll give it a shot. So if Crie murdered CC when did she come up with her plan and how did she lay the groundwork to implement her plan–buying the niacin from a pharmacy in another town and knowing that there would be an electric heater, generator, and cables at the lake on Boxing Day? I may have missed this but I don’t recall anything that suggests when or how she would have pulled this off. Had she ever been to the Boxing Day event? Not likely unless it was the year before and this wasn’t mentioned. If she bought the niacin before Christmas Eve how did she travel to wherever she got it (and this is supposing without evidence that she knew about the electric heater). At best, she would have known about CC’s boots for only a short while before Christmas. No pharmacy open on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. No indication she knew that CC would drink Mother’s bitter tea to hide the taste of the niacin. And why would Gamache have suspected the Three Graces murdering CC in revenge for Christmas Eve humiliation of Crie without wondering how they could have come up with the plan and gotten everything in place in less than 24 hours over Christmas? Sorry. But I’m seeing this as a loose end that isn’t tied up by the story. Just saying (because I really enjoyed the book).
I missed who started the fire?
[…] for differences between the two covers, the US edition focuses on a landscape image (and major plot setting), whereas the Swedish edition depicts a snowy owl, which is said to symbolize sacrifice, family, […]
[…] for differences between the two covers, the US edition focuses on a landscape image (and major plot setting), whereas the Swedish edition depicts a snowy owl, which is said to symbolize sacrifice, family, […]
Help! I’m listening to the Gamache books on audio. I’m looking for a quote that I thought was from “A Fatal Grace” but may be from “The Cruelest Month”. It begins “it was her favorite place…” and talks about home being cosy etc. I thought it was about emilie Longpre but it may be Clara?
A Fatal Grace was my first Louise Penny book, loved it. But I am confused, at the end, what happened between the Superintendent and Gamache? I am missing something. Feel kind of silly but I want to know what was going on in that whole subplot. Maybe if I read the previous book(s) I would know?
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
I have borrowed the one-liner from Dead Cold “she was only famous in the mirror” (paraphrased) and have used it more than once. Re-reading the books allows me to enjoy the writing all over again.
P.S. In the Sunday New York Times magazine (June 15, 2014), Hilary Clinton is quoted as saying she has a Louise Penny on her bedside table. Thought you should know.
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!
Should be all set — and gone now — Jane. Thanks!
No, thank YOU, Paul, for ridding us of the spammer’s post! 🙂
Why didn’t the 3 graces attempt to ‘mother’ Crie, who was their friend’s granddaughter? That puzzled me. I also didn’t understand why they thought they should commit suicide.
I think that Elle may have had the opportunity to go through CCs trash and saw the portfolio of Clara’s work that CC threw away.
I am just now reading this series and happily ran across this discussion. I love your explanation about this. Thanks for sharing!
Hi all! The discussion of THE CRUELEST MONTH has begun:
For “Loudspeakers” I’ve thought “Plowed streets” but the street wasn’t plowed sooo, I’m stuck.
What about “High mechanics boat?” Make an X spot…..?
I’mm looking for help with the mysterious utterances of Billy Williams: “Em are ducks”, “Chairs might red glass,” and “Loudspeakers!”
I need help to figure these out…
I decided that “Chairs might red glass” could be “Jars my tired ass,” because Billy Wms went a different way to the hospital than he did with CC in the truck. He went across the ice and on a snowy road with his snowmobile. When he used the truck with CC, it was very bumpy. All I could get for “Em are ducks” was E. R. Docs” (Emergency Room). Any other suggestions?
Brilliant! I think you’ve got it. 🙂
Yes. Thanks. I have tried for the last few days to figure out what Billy meant. It was fun and I couldn’t stop laughing at the suggestion to “drawl”. With the Southern drawl I speak with, I should have already figured this out. My home is in USA in Georgia on the Savannah River.
Whale oil beef hooked was easy. However, high mechanics boat & chairs might red glass totally befuddle moi! HELP!!
Thanks so much to all for sharing your insights on A FATAL GRACE. I thought I knew all these books really well, but there’s so much else to find in them.
Tomorrow is another book — THE CRUELEST MONTH — with much more on the Hadley house…
Thank you again, Hope, for getting us off to an excellent start in our re-examination of A Fatal Grace, and joining in on our discussions. As you wrote, there is so much more to be found in one of Louise Penny’s books than can be noted in one read-through. I happen to have a special feeling for this book, A Fatal Grace, since it’s the first book I read in the series, and got me introduced to the village of Three Pines and Armand Gamache of the Montreal Surete and his crew.
Just catching up with book 2 here. Finished it a couple of days ago, it was a re-read but I’d forgotten almost all of it. I love these books, and the characters, so much. I am not a reader who tries to solve the mystery. I just go along for the ride. I enjoy her rich, layered plots, and I worry myself sick about Gamache and the forces working against him. Even though I know that no matter what, except for his death, nothing can really shake him. He has Reine-Marie, his family, his love of music and literature, he’s going to be OK.
All that said, one thing really bugged me about this book. Maybe I’m picturing the curling event wrongly. But in my mind, I cannot believe that no one noticed JUMPER CABLES ATTACHED TO A FOLDING CHAIR??? Seriously???? They usually have thick cables with orange rubber coating, and the clips are massive, not little bitty alligator clips. I can hardly get my hands around the handles of mine, they’re BIG. Anyone with a single brain cell would see jumper cables clipped to a metal chair and their alarm bells would deafen everybody in the town. And the chair is sitting out on the ice with only what, 2 or 3 other chairs around it, and they are all right in front of the shoreline bleachers stuffed with onlookers? And the cables aren’t short – they run all the way back along the side of the bleachers to behind, where the truck is? This just seems totally incredible to me. What’s wrong with the picture I’ve built in my head?
I loved the way your wrote about the Hadley House, as though it were a young boy in short pants shuffling its feet and saying, “It wasn’t me that did it!” Which of course is true. (Although the stairs falling through with Gamache and Beauvoir MIGHT have been the house’s fault!–but really it’s more because someone neglected to do the necessary repairs). I’ve had some other thoughts along the lines of the Hadley House. Don’t we as human beings naturally associate some homes as either good or bad, depending on who lived (or died) in them? Specifically, real estate agents have noted difficulty selling a house where a murder has taken place. It’s as though the prospective buyers think that if they buy the house, they themselves might get killed. As for Nichol being somewhat akin to the Hadley House, as you wrote in your post, I’m not quite sure what you mean. I’m wondering if you mean that Yvette has somehow become the repository for the fears of her family. I would write more on that, but not sure if that’s what you meant.
Didn’t Ben doctor the stairs so they would give way? I seem to remember it that way.
I kind of like that idea of Nichol being the repository of her family’s fears. Certainly, her father’s fears (and his lies) are at the root of her behavior, and especially of her low self esteem, which seems to fuel her anger and wrong-headedness.
The idea about the comparison with the Hadley house with Nichol is still developing in my head. As Julie said, Yvette has been the reflection of her father’s fears of failure and he fuels that. She is also an expression of the fear of being unattractive and the outsider. So many desire to belong. It is easy to show you belong if there is someone else to collectively exclude, lots of bullying works this way. Of course Nichol doesn’t help herself, something the Hadley house can’t do.
Jean Guy is afraid of Nichol as he is worried that by trying to help her Gamache will be hurt. That could happen. Not everyone responds to kindness with relief. Some respond with resentment and lash out. They can’t tell if the kindness is real or a form of superiority. Jean Guy is also worried about old evils resurfacing from the Arnot case and Nichol being their spy and representative.
It is easier to imagine evil residing in the ugly and neglected than in the beautiful and popular.
I know what you are saying Jane about houses having an association with good or evil. It’s funny. The last three houses we have bought (yes we move a lot!) have definitely radiated warmth and homeliness and it wasn’t just on appearance. One house was already empty, decor was appalling and it reeked of cigarette smoke (gag). It was nothing that I wanted except perhaps location and I certainly wasn’t up for a massive renovation project. BUT, it had an amazing warmth of personality and despite its ugly exterior I wanted to live there. So weird but it worked out and I miss it.
Once again – the power of words, a power that can either build us up or tear us down…with effects that can (and often do) last a lifetime!
I mean ‘am I’ a question, not ‘I am’ a statement. Darn wish we could post edit comments!