Penny, Louise. A Fatal Grace.

NY: St. Martin, 2006.

This is the second entry in what has become a very highly regarded and multiple-award-winning mystery series, set in a tiny village in the southern Quebec woods and starring DCI Armand Gamache of the Sûreté de Quebec’s homicide division. You wouldn’t think a place the size of Three Pines could come up with more than one murder, but they seem to manage it — only this time there are ties to yet another case in Montreal.

The victim in the village is a delusional woman out to make a fortune (she assumes) with a Martha-Stewart-like home-decorating business, based on a mishmash philosophical system of her own invention. She was a really ugly and hateful person — nearly psychopathic, in fact — and absolutely no one misses her, but that doesn’t make her any the less Gamache’s business. And the method by which she was killed was bizarrely complex, which also gives him pause. At the same time, an elderly female derelict in the big city has turned up strangled outside a big department store, and Gamache takes on that one, too. And all this during the Christmas season, which is pretty special in Three Pines. Naturally, there’s a certain amount of credulity-straining coincidence involved in all this, but Penny handles it pretty well.

Most of the story turns on the lifelong relationships among three other old women of the village and the author does a first-rate job with all of them, as well as with Clara and Peter and Gabri and Olivier and Ruth Zardo and Inspector Beauvoir, and the other returning characters from the first book. And there’s yet another woman, the young and badly damaged Agent Yvette Nichol, whom Gamache took on as a trainee in the first book but was eventually forced to put on the bus back home when she turned out to be a disaster for his investigation. We learn more about what makes her tick, and also something about a police scandal which Gamache had exposed and which now threatens his career — but you don’t want to count him out yet. All of which guarantees I’ll be lining up the next few volumes.

This one won the first of Penny’s four (so far) Agatha Awards and I recommend it very highly indeed.

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