Winner of the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel!
Welcome to winter in Three Pines, a picturesque village in Quebec, where the villagers are preparing for a traditional country Christmas, and someone is preparing for murder.
No one liked CC de Poitiers. Not her quiet husband, not her spineless lover, not her pathetic daughter—and certainly none of the residents of Three Pines. CC de Poitiers managed to alienate everyone, right up until the moment of her death.
When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Quebec, is called to investigate, he quickly realizes he's dealing with someone quite extraordinary. CC de Poitiers was electrocuted in the middle of a frozen lake, in front of the entire village, as she watched the annual curling tournament. And yet no one saw anything. Who could have been insane enough to try such a macabre method of murder—or brilliant enough to succeed?
With his trademark compassion and courage, Gamache digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life to find the dangerous secrets long buried there. For a Quebec winter is not only staggeringly beautiful but deadly, and the people of Three Pines know better than to reveal too much of themselves. But other dangers are becoming clear to Gamache. As a bitter wind blows into the village, something even more chilling is coming for Gamache himself.
About the Author
LOUISE PENNY is the author of the #1 New York Times and Globe and Mail bestselling series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels. She has won numerous awards, including a CWA Dagger and the Agatha Award (seven times), and was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. In 2017, she received the Order of Canada for her contributions to Canadian culture. Louise lives in a small village south of Montréal.
Read an Excerpt
A Fatal Grace
By Louise Penny
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Louise Penny
All rights reserved.
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift. She might even have gone to her daughter's end of term pageant at Miss Edward's School for Girls, or 'girths' as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer. But the only end she knew was near belonged to a man named Saul.
'So, what do you think? Do you like it?' She balanced her book on her pallid stomach.
Saul looked at it, not for the first time. She'd dragged it out of her huge purse every five minutes for the past few days. In business meetings, dinners, taxi rides through the snowy streets of Montreal, CC'd suddenly bend down and emerge triumphant, holding her creation as though another virgin birth.
'I like the picture,' he said, knowing the insult. He'd taken the picture. He knew she was asking, pleading, for more and he knew he no longer cared to give it. And he wondered how much longer he could be around CC de Poitiers before he became her. Not physically, of course. At forty-eight she was a few years younger than him. She was slim and ropy and toned, her teeth impossibly white and her hair impossibly blonde. Touching her was like caressing a veneer of ice. There was a beauty to it, and a frailty he found attractive. But there was also danger. If she ever broke, if she shattered, she'd tear him to pieces.
But her exterior wasn't the issue. Watching her caress her book with more tenderness than she'd ever shown when caressing him, he wondered whether her ice water insides had somehow seeped into him, perhaps during sex, and were slowly freezing him. Already he couldn't feel his core.
At fifty-two Saul Petrov was just beginning to notice his friends weren't quite as brilliant, not quite as clever, not quite as slim as they once were. In fact, most had begun to bore him. And he'd noticed a telltale yawn or two from them as well. They were growing thick and bald and dull, and he suspected he was too. It wasn't so bad that women rarely looked at him any more or that he'd begun to consider trading his downhill skis for cross country, or that his GP had scheduled his first prostate test. He could accept all that. What woke Saul Petrov at two in the morning, and whispered in his ears in the voice that had warned him as a child that lions lived under his bed, was the certainty that people now found him boring. He'd take deep dark breaths of the night air, trying to reassure himself that the stifled yawn of his dinner companion was because of the wine or the magret de canard or the warmth in the Montreal restaurant, wrapped as they were in their sensible winter sweaters.
But still the night voice growled and warned of dangers ahead. Of impending disaster. Of telling tales too long, of an attention span too short, of seeing the whites of too many eyes. Of glances, fast and discreet, at watches. When can they reasonably leave him? Of eyes scanning the room, desperate for more stimulating company.
And so he'd allowed himself to be seduced by CC. Seduced and devoured so that the lion under the bed had become the lion in the bed. He'd begun to suspect this self-absorbed woman had finally finished absorbing herself, her husband and even that disaster of a daughter and was now busy absorbing him.
He'd already become cruel in her company. And he'd begun despising himself. But not quite as much as he despised her.
'It's a brilliant book,' she said, ignoring him. 'I mean, really. Who wouldn't want this?' She waved it in his face. 'People'll eat it up. There're so many troubled people out there.' She turned now and actually looked out their hotel room window at the building opposite, as though surveying her 'people'. 'I did this for them.' Now she turned back to him, her eyes wide and sincere.
Does she believe it? he wondered.
He'd read the book, of course. Be Calm she'd called it, after the company she'd founded a few years ago, which was a laugh given the bundle of nerves she actually was. The anxious, nervous hands, constantly smoothing and straightening. The snippy responses, the impatience that spilled over into anger.
Calm was not a word anyone would apply to CC de Poitiers, despite her placid, frozen exterior.
She'd shopped the book around to all the publishers, beginning with the top publishing houses in New York and ending with Publications Réjean et Maison des cartes in St Polycarpe, a one-vache village along the highway between Montreal and Toronto.
They'd all said no, immediately recognizing the manuscript as a flaccid mishmash of ridiculous self-help philosophies, wrapped in half-baked Buddhist and Hindu teachings, spewed forth by a woman whose cover photo looked as though she'd eat her young.
'No goddamned enlightenment,' she'd said to Saul in her Montreal office the day a batch of rejection letters arrived, ripping them into pieces and dropping them on the floor for the hired help to clean up. 'This world is messed up, I tell you. People are cruel and insensitive, they're out to screw each other. There's no love or compassion. This,' she sliced her book violently in the air like an ancient mythical hammer, heading for an unforgiving anvil, 'will teach people how to find happiness.'
Her voice was low, the words staggering under the weight of venom. She'd gone on to self-publish her book, making sure it was out in time for Christmas. And while the book talked a lot about light Saul found it interesting and ironic that it had actually been released on the winter solstice. The darkest day of the year.
'Who published it again?' He couldn't seem to help himself. She was silent. 'Oh, I remember now,' he said. 'No one wanted it. That must have been horrible.' He paused for a moment, wondering whether to twist the knife. Oh, what the hell. Might as well. 'How'd that make you feel?' Did he imagine the wince?
But her silence remained, eloquent, her face impassive. Anything CC didn't like didn't exist. That included her husband and her daughter. It included any unpleasantness, any criticism, any harsh words not her own, any emotions. CC lived, Saul knew, in her own world, where she was perfect, where she could hide her feelings and hide her failings.
He wondered how long before that world would explode. He hoped he'd be around to see it. But not too close.
People are cruel and insensitive, she'd said. Cruel and insensitive. It wasn't all that long ago, before he'd taken the contract to freelance as CC's photographer and lover, that he'd actually thought the world a beautiful place. Each morning he'd wake early and go into the young day, when the world was new and anything was possible, and he'd see how lovely Montreal was. He'd see people smiling at each other as they got their cappuccinos at the café, or their fresh flowers or their baguettes. He'd see the children in autumn gathering the fallen chestnuts to play conkers. He'd see the elderly women walking arm in arm down the Main.
He wasn't foolish or blind enough not to also see the homeless men and women, or the bruised and battered faces that spoke of a long and empty night and a longer day ahead.
But at his core he believed the world a lovely place. And his photographs reflected that, catching the light, the brilliance, the hope. And the shadows that naturally challenged the light.
Ironically it was this very quality that had caught CC's eye and led her to offer him the contract. An article in a Montreal style magazine had described him as a 'hot' photographer, and CC always went for the best. Which was why they always took a room at the Ritz. A cramped, dreary room on a low floor without view or charm, but the Ritz. CC would collect the shampoos and stationery to prove her worth, just as she'd collected him. And she'd use them to make some obscure point to people who didn't care, just as she'd use him. And then, eventually, everything would be discarded. As her husband had been tossed aside, as her daughter was ignored and ridiculed.
The world was a cruel and insensitive place.
And he now believed it.
He hated CC de Poitiers.
He got out of bed, leaving CC to stare at her book, her real lover. He looked at her and she seemed to go in and out of focus. He cocked his head to one side and wondered whether he'd had too much to drink again. But still she seemed to grow fuzzy, then sharp, as though he was looking through a prism at two different women, one beautiful, glamorous, vivacious, and the other a pathetic, dyed-blonde rope, all corded and wound and knotted and rough. And dangerous.
'What's this?' He reached into the garbage and withdrew a portfolio. He recognized it immediately as an artist's dossier of work. It was beautifully and painstakingly bound and printed on archival Arche paper. He flipped it open and caught his breath.
A series of works, luminous and light, seemed to glow off the fine paper. He felt a stirring in his chest. They showed a world both lovely and hurt. But mostly, it was a world where hope and comfort still existed. It was clearly the world the artist saw each day, the world the artist lived in. As he himself once lived in a world of light and hope.
The works appeared simple but were in reality very complex. Images and colors were layered one on top of the other. Hours and hours, days and days must have been spent on each one to get the desired effect.
He stared down at the one before him now. A majestic tree soared into the sky, as though keening for the sun. The artist had photographed it and had somehow captured a sense of movement without making it disorienting. Instead it was graceful and calming and, above all, powerful. The tips of the branches seemed to melt or become fuzzy as though even in its confidence and yearning there was a tiny doubt. It was brilliant.
All thoughts of CC were forgotten. He'd climbed into the tree, almost feeling tickled by its rough bark, as if he had been sitting on his grandfather's lap and snuggling into his unshaven face. How had the artist managed that?
He couldn't make out the signature. He flipped through the other pages and slowly felt a smile come to his frozen face and move to his hardened heart.
Maybe, one day, if he ever got clear of CC he could go back to his work and do pieces like this.
He exhaled all the darkness he'd stored up.
'So, do you like it?' CC held her book up and waved it at him.CHAPTER 2
Crie carefully got into her costume, trying not to rip the white chiffon. The Christmas pageant had already started. She could hear the lower forms singing 'Away in a manger,' though it sounded suspiciously like 'A whale in a manger'. She wondered, briefly, whether that was a comment on her. Were they all laughing at her? She swallowed that thought and continued dressing, humming a bit as she went.
'Who's doing that?' The voice of Madame Latour, the music teacher, could be heard in the crowded, excited room. 'Who's humming?'
Madame's face, birdlike and bright, peeked round the corner where Crie had crept to change alone. Instinctively Crie grabbed her costume and tried to cover her near-naked fourteen-year-old body. It was impossible, of course. Too much body and too little chiffon.
'Was it you?'
Crie stared, too frightened to speak. Her mother had warned her about this. Had warned her never to sing in public.
But now, betrayed by a buoyant heart, she'd actually let some humming escape.
Madame Latour stared at the huge girl and felt a bit of her lunch in her throat. Those rolls of fat, those dreadful dimples, the underwear disappearing into the flesh. The face so frozen and staring. The science teacher, Monsieur Drapeau, had commented that Crie was top in his class, though another teacher had pointed out that one topic that semester had been vitamins and minerals and Crie had probably eaten the textbook.
Still, here she was at the pageant so maybe she was coming out of herself, though that would take a lot of doing.
'Better hurry. You're on soon.' She left without waiting for a reply.
This was the first Christmas pageant Crie had been in in the five years she'd been at Miss Edward's School for Girls. Every other year while the students made their costumes she'd made mumbled excuses. No one had ever tried to dissuade her. Instead she'd been given the job of running the lights for the show, having a head, as Madame Latour put it, for technical things. Things not alive, she'd meant. So each year Crie would watch the Christmas pageant alone in the dark at the back, as the beautiful, glowing, gifted girls had danced and sung the story of the Christmas miracle, basking in the light Crie provided.
But not this year.
She got into her costume and looked at herself in the mirror. A huge chiffon snowflake looked back. Really, she had to admit, more of a snowdrift than a single flake, but still, it was a costume and it was quite splendid. The other girls' mothers had helped them, but Crie had done her own. To surprise Mommy, she'd told herself, trying to drown out the other voice.
If she looked closely she could see the tiny droplets of blood where her pudgy, indelicate fingers had fumbled the needle and speared herself. But she'd persevered until she finally had this costume. And then she'd had her brainwave. Really, the most brilliant thought in her entire fourteen years.
Her mother, she knew, revered light. It was, she'd been told all her life, what we all strive for. That's why it's called enlightenment. Why smart people are described as bright. Why thin people succeed. Because they're lighter than others.
It was all so obvious.
And now Crie would actually be playing a snowflake. The whitest, lightest of elements. And her own bit of brilliance? She'd gone to the dollar store and with her allowance bought a bottle of glitter. She'd even managed to walk straight past the chocolate bars, stale and staring. Crie had been on a diet for a month now and soon she was sure her mother would notice.
She'd applied glue and glitter and now she looked at the results.
For the first time in her life Crie knew she was beautiful. And she knew, in just a few short minutes, her mother would think so too.
Clara Morrow stared through the frosted mullions of her living-room window at the tiny village of Three Pines. She leaned forward and shaved some frost from the window. Now that we have some money, she thought, we should replace the old windows. But while Clara knew that was the sensible thing to do, most of her decisions weren't really sensible. But they suited her life. And now, watching the snow globe that was Three Pines, she knew she liked looking at it through the beautiful designs the frost made on the old glass.
Sipping a hot chocolate she watched as brightly swaddled villagers strolled through the softly falling snow, waving mittened hands in greeting and occasionally stopping to chat to each other, their words coming in puffs, like cartoon characters. Some headed into Olivier's Bistro for a café au lait, others needed fresh bread or a pâtisserie from Sarah's Boulangerie. Myrna's New and Used Books, next to the bistro, was closed for the day. Monsieur Béliveau shoveled the front walk of his general store and waved to Gabri, huge and dramatic, rushing across the green from his bed and breakfast on the corner. To a stranger the villagers would be anonymous, even asexual. In a Quebec winter everyone looked alike. Great waddling, swaddling, muffled masses of goose down and Thinsulate so that even the slim looked plump and the plump looked globular. Each looked the same. Except for the tuques on their heads. Clara could see Ruth's bright green pompom hat nodding to Wayne's multi-colored cap, knitted by Pat on long autumn nights. The Lévesque kids all wore shades of blue as they skated up and down the frozen pond after the hockey puck, little Rose trembling so hard in the net even Clara could see her aqua bonnet quiver. But her brothers loved her and each time they raced toward the net they pretended to trip and instead of letting go a blistering slap shot they gently slipped toward her until they all ended up in a confused and happy heap on the verge of the goal. It looked to Clara like one of those Currier and Ives prints she'd stared at for hours as a child and yearned to step into.
Three Pines was robed in white. A foot of snow had fallen in the last few weeks and every old home round the village green had its own tuque of purest white. Smoke wafted out of the chimneys as though the homes had their own voice and breath, and Christmas wreaths decorated the doors and gates. At night the quiet little Eastern Townships village glowed with light from the Christmas decorations. There was a tender hum about the place as adults and children alike prepared for the big day.
Excerpted from A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny. Copyright © 2006 Louise Penny. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
Discussion questions for The Three Pines Mysteries, by Louise Penny
1. How important is the use of humor in this book?
2. Which Three Pines villager would you most like to have cafe au lait with at the bistro?
3. Why is Ruth a villager?
4 Louise Penny says her books are about murder, but at their heart they're about other things. What else is this book about? What are some other themes?
5. Agent Nichol is an extremely controversial character in the books. What do you think of her? What purpose does she serve?
Discussion questions for A Fatal Grace
1. In the golden age of classic murder mysteries, the Detection Club, whose founders included Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, drew up a list of rules for crime fiction that included the following: "No clue that is important to the solution of the puzzle may be concealed from the reader." What are the clues to the murders in A Fatal Grace, and how does Louise Penny hide them in plain sight?
2. Consider the lines (from "A Sad Child," by Margaret Atwood"): "Well, all children are sad/but some get over it." A number of the people in the novel have had damaging childhoods. What helps or hinders them in moving beyond those childhoods?
3. Discuss the different meanings in the book of "Be Calm" (and B KLM).
4. Beauvoir regards Gamache as having saved him. Is Gamache trying to do the same for Nichol, and what do you think his chances are for success? What do you think it takes to get on what Beauvoir calls Gamache's legendary, albeit well hidden, "bad side"?
5. Why does Gamache laugh with joy when Ruth Zardo says that CC de Poitiers "wasn't very good, but she wasn't so bad either. I mean really…who isn't cruel and selfish?" Do you think Gamache agrees with this idea? Do you agree?
6. Three Pines is described as enchanted and magical, a fairy-tale worldbut it's also a world where Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster. How do you view the village and the people who live there?
7. Clara says, "At two in the afternoon my art is brilliant, at two in the morning it's crap." Peter doesn't understand her art, but Gamache calls it marvelous. What do you think this says about her art and about her marriage? Why does Gamache tell Clara that she has "an instinct for crime"?
8. What impression do you get of Reine-Marie from her relatively brief appearances in the story? What do you think of her marriage to Gamache?
9. Both Clara and Gamache believe they see God in the course of this story. How do you view their experiences (and why lemon meringue pie)?