Louise Penny: A Fatal Grace

We have sold so many copies of Louise Penny’s fine first novel,¬†Still Life, that I know I am not the only one captivated by this delightful writer. Happily, there is now a second installment out, just as beautifully written as the first. The first book was about the death of a much beloved character; the second book is about the death of a woman universally hated. Penny’s novels are set in the tiny Canadian village of Three Pines – the crimes are investigated, however, by the Quebec Surete, bringing a refreshing breath of police practicality to the whole affair. The setting is very Canadian, and no more so than in this novel, where the victim is killed in a bizarre electrocution during a curling match. This is a complex novel, full of subplots and interrelated emotional connections. The emotional connections all tie together by the end of the book, though, so the circuitous path Penny chooses to arrive at her destination is more than worthwhile.

The central figure of the book – in this novel, as in the first – is the victim, CC de Poitiers, a terrible mother, an adulterous wife and a self centered, self aggrandizing opportunist in every respect who has no feeling for her fellow humans. Penny’s acerbic description of her at Christmas Eve church services pretty much captures her personality: “…at the back stood CC de Poitiers wearing a fluffy sweater made of either cashmere or kittens.” CC bears a striking resemblance, in fact, to Dodie Smith’s indelible Cruella deVil, though Cruella’s cruelties were mainly directed toward dogs, not humans. The whole town feels the same revulsion and guilt when CC attacks her chubby, nearly mute 12 year old daughter Crie verbally outside the Christmas Eve service. Penny’s portrait of the troubled, and aptly named, Crie, is completely heartbreaking.

The thread that ties the disparate elements together is a dead homeless woman in Montreal, Elle, and a group of elderly Three Pines women, Mother, Kaye and Em. As the threads are unfurled the ties between all the women are explained, and because Penny is a true mystery writer, it’s through the use of fair clues, though a working knowledge of the film¬†The Lion in Winter comes in very handy. Words are very powerful tools. In the hands of a writer like James Ellroy, they can be a vicious bludgeon that leaves the reader gasping; in other hands, they are something different. Emily Dickinson, for example, created complete beauty with words, and Louise Penny is often able to do the same. There are portions of this book that are so beautifully written they stick with the reader for months (trust me) afterwards. At one point one of the characters encounters a street person – she thinks to herself: “She had a sneaking, and secret, suspicion that if God ever came to earth He’d be a beggar.” As I read this I thought if Emily Dickinson ever came back to earth, it might be as a mystery writer.