Three Pines is an idyllic spot:
“A stream tumbled from an old stone mill past a white clapboard chapel and meandered around one side of the village. The village was shaped like a circle with dirt roads running off it in four directions. In the middle was a village green and ringing it were old homes, some in the Québecois style with steeply sloping metal roofs and narrow dormers, some clapboard with wide open verandas. And at least one was fieldstone, built by hand from stones heaved from fields by a pioneer frantic to beat the oncoming murderous winter.”
To ever-aspiring artist Clara, Three Pines is the real-life evocation of the enchanted Christmas village of her childhood, that annual storefront display of “dancing bears and skating ducks and frogs in Victorian costume fishing from the bridge . . . the place she’d go when disappointments and dawning cruelty would overwhelm the sensitive little girl.”
And when burnt-out psychologist Myrna first glimpsed the “village hidden among the hills and forests,” she wondered if it was like Brigadoon: “Perhaps it only appeared every number of years, and only to people who needed to see it.”
“Three Pines had what she craved. It had croissants and café au lait. It had steak frites and the New York Times. It had a bakery, a bistro, a B. & B., a general store. It had peace and stillness and laughter. It had great joy and great sadness and the ability to accept both and be content. It had companionship and kindness.”
The village isn’t on any official maps, and apart from its inhabitants, few people seem to know of it. One man who has discovered it is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Surété, who over the course of the series must make repeated visits to the perfect little village to solve its perfectly horrible murders.
Penny salts her sugary descriptions of Three Pines with earthy and even crude remarks from its citizens, who good-naturedly ridicule each other’s features and foibles. It’s not uncommon for B&B owner Gabri—for example—to comment on aging poet Ruth Zardo’s beard; she might counter with “bitch,” and he, in turn, with “slut.” Even the omniscient narrator feels free to undercut the charm: “There at the back stood CC de Poitiers wearing a fluffy white sweater made either of cashmere or kittens.”
A Fatal Grace is about family history: past tragedies and traumas that seep into the present; successive generations carry—or deliberately choose to hold on to—family burdens. When—and how—do you let go of the past?
One of the characters realizes, too late, that “she’d spent her entire life trying to solve something that had nothing to do with her,” and lost her own life in the process. Another was granted a vision that helped her to move through despair, to understand that “the world wasn’t a dark and desperate place.”
Even the formidable Gamache isn’t immune to such struggles. Happily, remarkably, he can rise above the depths to which his profession regularly takes him.
“My job is to find people who take lives. And to do that I have to find out why. And to do that I have to get into their heads and open that last door. But when I come out again . . . the world is suddenly more beautiful, more alive, more lovely than ever. When you see the worst you appreciate the best.”
But mysteries in his past continue to gnaw at him. So when—as expected—Gamache solves the crime at the core of A Fatal Grace, the reader knows she must continue on, to more books, to discover how Gamache will face his personal demons.