Louise Penny's second Inspector Armande Gamache-not-ganache, A Fatal Grace, is an approporate read for the holidays, taking place as it does over Christmas in the hopelessly picturesque Quebec village of Three Pines. It's cold in Quebec in December, skin-burning, oxygen-depriving, life-threatening cold. But the snow is charming, the bistro cozy, and the tea and hot toddys steam merrily. And the murder is fiendish!
While there is a slowly-revealed backstory involving some deeply controversial case on which Gamache did the right thing to the dismay of his colleagues, most of A Fatal Grace focuses on the ingenious murder-by-electrocution of CC de Poitiers, a self-centered, cold, and almost universally loathed self-styled lifestyle guru. CC is killed in the middle of a crowd at the annual Boxing Day curling match, but no one seems to know anything about what happened other than that this was no accident. There is no shortage of suspects, including a new set of Three Pines denizens known as the Three Graces, three doyennes of the town who are universally respected and adored. There is also a sullen lover, a weak husband, and an emotionally abused daughter. Could be any of them, right? And did I mention the missing mother?
Penny does like to get her little crowd of Three Pines citizens together - Peter and Clara, Gabri and Olivier, Myrna, and Ruth - and have them chat wittily over cozy dinners. You may find that a bit cloying. Can there really be a such a cohesive group of slightly eccentric but charming, intelligent, warm individuals in any town? What happens in summer when there are no fires to crackle cozily as backdrop? But despite this nod to small-town perfection, the mystery here is compelling and there is enough uncertainty about the new folks in the story, and the other threads that Gamache is trying to keep together, to keep you quite engaged.
And if the story doesn't do it, Gamache himself is so darn likable that you keep reading to see how he'll resolve whatever new tangle is revealed. Smart, thoughtful, and eminently positive about the future of the human race in spite of the horrors he sees regularly as a homicide detective, Gamache infuses his scenes with grace and intelligence. How can you not like a man who thinks that two of the greatest inventions of the late 20th c. are the remote starter and heated seats for cars?
I guess that this is it for 2012. I got lots of books for Christmas, not all mysteries (most not, actually), so more reading head. Happy new year!