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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fatal Grace ($6.99), by Louise Penny

The town of Three Pines is picture-perfect, cozy, warm (even in Quebec's freezing winter), and inviting. It is also the scene of its second murder in a little over a year. Penny writes with a soothing style that belies the harsh crime and sometimes four-letter invectives that the charming residents of Three Pines use. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that Penny's works are cozies. After all, they are filled with Agatha Christie characters in an Agatha Christie country setting. The victim herself in this latest book is a classic villainess: she is arrogant, egotistical, cold, duplicitous, and manipulative. Not to mention vicious, scathing, and insensitive. But the resemblance to all things Christie ends there.

Armand Gamache, beloved chief homicide inspector of the Quebec Sûreté who first appeared in Still Life, is called upon to solve the murder of CC de Poitiers, the above-cataloged villainess. She has insinuated herself, her cowering family, and her fictitious and incomprehensible self-help philosophy into the smooth and happy workings of Three Pines. She was not liked and she is not mourned. However, solving the case involves more than just lining up the suspects and naming the killer (through a dazzling display of logic and an extensive knowledge of human nature, of course). As the layers peel back to reveal just who CC de Poitiers was, we glimpse something more like the darker side of Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters than Christie.

There sometimes is no indication of tone in Penny's dialogue, so the going is initially difficult until you get a sense of who means what to whom. (It also helps to have read her first book in which you meet most of the characters and learn their relationships to each other, she said helpfully.) Also, most of her characters are burdened with a sad knowledge of each other and an over-abundant responsibility for their fellow villagers. If Fatal Grace were a person, it would be a tall, slender, graceful woman who carefully, deliberately, and tenderly examines each and every thing in the room. She would nod her head knowingly while dropping obfuscatory comments. You have to be in the mood for her -- I mean, “it.”

Penny’s first book was not so portentous and thus more enjoyable. But there is something comforting in knowing that someone as principled as Gamache is watching our literary back.

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