“Dead Cold” (published in the US under the less pleasingly ambiguous and less accurate title of “A Fatal Grace”) surprised me by being qualitatively very different from “Still Life”, the first book in the series.
“Still Life” was a comforting, almost wistful, book in which a wise detective gently unravels the deceptions hiding a murder and, in the process, falls in love with the village of Three Pines and its inhabitants.
“Dead Cold” takes us back to Three Pines and the villagers who brought the last book to life. It captures their reactions to CeeCee, a new arrival so cold and cruel, that when she dies a dreadful death the village almost celebrates, as if a house had just landed on the Wicked Witch of the West. Once again, Chief Inspector Gamache is called to Three Pines to discover the murderer.
Despite having the same setting and characters as “Still Life” and a similarly complex plot, rolled out with at a similarly leisurely pace with regular pauses for food and philosophical reflection, “Dead Cold” sets off in a new direction. It sets this direction in a beautiful and compelling way, but I found the direction itself hard to accept.
As Chief Inspector Gamache says more than once, this case is about our beliefs and how they shape our actions and define our lives. In this book, the characters hunt not only for a murderer but for the numinous. Psalm 46 is quoted repeatedly
“Be still and know that I am God”
Gamache and a number of the other characters in the book actively seek the presence of God to provide them with direction or purpose. The God is not necessarily a Christian God. There is a nod towards other religions, including a translation of the traditional Indian greeting, Namaste, as “The God in me greets the God in you.” Leonard Cohen is also enlisted in the search for the numinous, with a quote from the lyrics of Anthem:
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Light becomes central to the discussion of the divine and the language used in the book is often truly luminous, glowing with beauty and joy. The passage in which Clara’s painting of “The Three Grace’s” is described is wonderful as are some of the physical descriptions of Three Pines.
Despite the beauty of the language and the skill of the exposition, I struggled with the strong influence of the divine in this book. At times, I felt as if I had wandered into a modern allegory, exploring a seeker’s path through the tribulations of a long life, rather than a murder mystery.
The struggle arose partly from my expectation that I was reading a murder mystery and not a parable, and partly because I am so deeply unconvinced by the possibility of the personal experience of God in my own life.
I resolved the struggle by accepting that I wasn’t reading a murder mystery but rather a novel that seeks to illustrate the possibility of belief as a source of good or evil that has a real impact on who we become. I allowed that the characters described here sincerely believe in the existence of the God they seek and that Three Pines is more than a place, it is an aspiration for what a community should be.
Taken on these terms, “Dead Cold” became a delightful read with a murder mystery and a little internal Police political intrigue added as seasoning.
I ended the book feeling glad that I’d heard Louise Penny’s unique voice and wondering what intent is driving this series.
Adam Sims did a great job narrating “Dead Cold”. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.