Cover image for Coup de grâce
Coup de grâce
Borthwick, J. S.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, [2000]

Physical Description:
x, 335 pages : 1 map ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

On Order



Newly minted PhD and sometime amateur detective Sarah Deane goes to teach at a New England girls' boarding school with a famously iron-fisted French teacher, Mme. Carpentier. But soon afterwards an art teacher turns up dead, bludgeoned to death on a campus path. Was it a case of mistaken identity, with the killer really out to get Mme. Carpentier? No one can stop Sarah from investigating....

Author Notes

J.S. Borthwick lives with her family on the Maine coast, where many of her mysteries are set.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In Borthwick's tenth Sarah Deane mystery, Sarah, fresh from earning her Ph.D., has gone to teach at an all-girl boarding school in Massachusetts, leaving her doctor husband, Alex, back in Maine. At the school, Sarah finds herself in the midst of a wildly eccentric faculty, the most notable of whom is the universally despised French teacher, Madame Carpentier. When threats to Carpentier begin appearing, Sarah is not willing to write them off as a joke. After a murder occurs, no one else is laughing, either. Like Lilian Jackson Braun, Borthwick knows how to describe the elements of daily life--food, people, weather, animals--in such a pleasing manner that readers happily overlook her skimpy plots. Sarah herself may not be the most interesting of female sleuths, but she is certainly one of the nicest and most charming. For anyone who likes cozies, this is a perfect book to snuggle up with on a winter's day. --Jenny McLarin

Library Journal Review

With a new doctorate and a new job teaching at a girls' boarding school, Sarah Deane still runs into murder. Someone murders the school's art teacher--perhaps mistaking her for the much-dreaded French teacher. For series and "cozy" fans. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One You may charge me with murder--or want of sense-- (We are all of us weak at times): But the slightest approach to a false pretense Was never among my crimes. --Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark , Fit IV From who's who in american secondary schools Grace Marie-Henriette Carpentier, daughter of Grace Briggs, of Portland, Maine, and Paul-Henri Jolicoeur, of Paris, France; b. in Lyon, October 2, 1949, B.A., University of Aix-en-Provence; M. Ed., Boston University. Married 1974 to Charles-Paul Carpentier (now deceased). Author of the monograph, "Une Salle de Classe N'Est Pas Une Democratie. "Madame Carpentier has been since 1979 Director of the Language Division and Instructor in French at Miss Merritt's School in Carlisle, Massachusetts. THE immortal words attributed to Marshall Petain concerning the defense of Verdun-- on ne passe pas --they shall not pass--could apply, in a less dramatic sense, apply to Madame Carpentier's French classes at Miss Merritt's School in the small town of Carlisle.     This school, catering to young women in their high school years, had from its founding put a strong emphasis on foreign language instruction, and today this remained a cornerstone of the school's academic structure. And Madame Carpentier was an admirable representative of such a stone; she had sharp corners and was as hard as any chunk of granite.     Miss Merritt's had been founded in 1861 by an intrepid Miss Claudia Merritt, who believed that American women had better shape up and learn something to help them survive in a contentious modern world. The school, however, was now generally referred to by the more acceptable name "The Merritt School" or more simply "Merritt's." A Merritt girl, when graduated, would combine, it was hoped, the tenacity of its founder with the contemporary sensibility of the new millennium. Unfortunately, among the impediments blocking this aspiration stood Madame Carpentier.     Semester after semester, Madame Carpentier, with a stroke of her Mont Blanc pen, blocked students from honor rolls, free weekends, extracurricular activities, varsity teams, and, in several notable instances, from graduation itself. It was said with some truth that an auditorium could have been filled with students whose hopes of Stanford or Harvard had been blighted by a few sharp remarks inserted into their college applications by their French instructor.     However, as the years went by, the presence of Madame in the lives of the Merritt students became in a curious way a sort of bloody badge of honor, something the equivalent of making it through some excruciating tribal rite of passage. Her blackbrowed, sharp-nosed self, wrapped in her favorite cold-weather garment--a black wool, high-collared cape--was pointed out with a certain amount of pride by students to visiting relatives and prospective applicants. In short, a kind of cachet began to be attached to Madame Grace Marie-Henriette and by association to those girls who had taken, endured, and passed--or been removed from--one of Madame's classes. As one of the former Merritt students remarked--she now a practicing physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston--"not even my medical school exams could compare in horror to one of Madame Carpentier's two-hour finals."     And such was Madame's reputation that former students could always command an audience if the subject was a tale of some noted Old Girl who had been done in by Grace Carpentier. A renowned pianist from Oregon had failed two semesters with Madame, a Virginia governor's wife, an attorney, had fled in tears from a French Three classroom; a noted biologist defied Madame to her face and spent a large part of her senior year on detention; and a First Lady had failed to graduate because of her French grade and had to be tutored all the following summer, grâce à Madame.     And when a certain Sarah Douglas Deane, a newly minted Ph.D. from Maine's Bowmouth College, was offered a temporary teaching slot at Miss Merritt's School--there being no immediate opening in her own English Department--all she could think of was being on the same turf with the woman some of her friends called Madame Coutou--Madame the Knife.     "Letter from your cousin Giddy," called Sarah. She waved a sheet of paper in the face of her husband, Alex, who had just arrived home from a long day of seeing patients at the Mary Starbuck Hospital, an institution called by the Camden, Maine, Chamber of Commerce brochure, "a major teaching health facility."     Alex McKenzie, a tall man with black brows, dark hair, a notable chin, and a thin, long mouth--all in all, a formidable presence when he wanted to confront something disagreeable--threw himself into one of the dilapidated upholstered chairs in the McKenzie-Deane kitchen. He was tired, wanted a cold beer, and didn't wish to hear much about cousin Giddy Lester--a loose family cannon if there ever was one.     "Giddy," said Alex, "isn't coming here, is she? I thought she was safely employed by that girls' school, what's it called, Miss Muffin's?"     "Miss Merritt's, or just Merritt's. And don't be condescending. It's a good school, rigorous, strong on women being strong--that sort of thing."     "I think that's the place where one of my cousins was thrown out of French class and switched to Italian."     Sarah flopped into a chair next to Alex. Before answering, she looked around for a moment and sighed. The kitchen, indeed the whole house, showed the unmistakable signs of one of its tenants having just emerged from the academic threshing ground of a thesis defense--of "The Use of Early English Folk Tales in the Novels of Charles Dickens." The room was, to put it bluntly, a wreck--an overflowing, unwashed, undusted wreck. Sarah, the early ebullience of finally finishing her doctorate having faded, found the kitchen scene a desperate one. She also saw her husband looking frayed--too many very sick patients, too many nights on call. At the same time she knew herself to be hollow-eyed, sleep-deprived, and altogether lean, mean, and very hungry.     "So," said Alex, "what does Giddy say, and how about pizzas while you tell me? No, wait, I'll get them started myself. We've got frozen crusts in the freezer, and all I have to do is sprinkle the junk on them. Then I'll give you a hand with the housekeeping. And what happened to your hair? It looks like something that Patsy finished chewing." This with a nod toward Sarah's enormous Irish wolfhound, who now laid his shaggy head across her shoes.     Patsy, on hearing his name, rolled on his back, lashed the rug with his tail, and bared his teeth.     "I could even eat Patsy," said Sarah, looking fondly at the dog--a rescued beast found on a memorable visit to the Texas border. "And I haven't had my hair properly cut in months, my skin feels like sandpaper, and I know I look like hell, but never mind, just listen, and I'll read the letter." And Sarah smoothed the long, yellow-lined sheet.     Hey, Sarah and Alex: Just a note from the upscale side of Boston--Miss Merritt's School for young female monsters. First, congrats on the Ph.D. Second, want a job? I know you're unemployed because Alex's mom--Aunt Elspeth--spilled the beans. You see, Dr. Himmelfarb--she teaches three lit classes--had her baby early, only it was twins, so she's taking the rest of the year off to cope with things, and there's this hole made to order for you to fall into. My dorm--Gregory House--has faculty space, and you can have the room above mine on the third floor--it's a sort of mini-apartment. It's a five-day teaching week, so you could get back to Maine on weekends. Most of the faculty are sane, a few eccentrics, one or two paranoiacs, an inflated ego here and there, and of course, La Carpentier, or Lady Guillotine. Let me know and I'll give the head--Dr. Singer--the good news. As for me, I'm fine--teaching art plus coaching soccer. Say hello to cousin Alex. Ciao, Giddy. P.S. They might let you bring Patsy; what's one more dog in this zoo.     Alex, having unwrapped a frozen pizza crust, was now industriously slicing mushrooms. He paused, knife in hand. "So would you think of taking the school up on it? You and Patsy, leaving me lorn and lonely."     "Without me around, you can see more patients," said Sarah. "Start making a lot of house calls. Remember the olden days when the beloved doctor was often invited to share in the family meal? You could save a bundle by mooching free dinners."     Alex, now twisting open a jar of tomato sauce, looked up. "Seriously, would you go?"     "I'd miss you, I'd miss our house--disheveled though it is--but Bowmouth doesn't want me, not until next year anyway. I need a job, and all the colleges around have their faculty in place for the next semester. It's December after all; Christmas at our throats, New Year's sneaking up on us."     "How about sub teaching in the local high schools?"     "A thankless job. New sets of kids in different classes ready to destroy you every week. Having to use other teachers' programs. I'd do it in desperation, but I'd rather grab something a little more permanent. Like for a whole semester. Besides, I don't mind Giddy."     "I also don't mind Giddy, especially when she's in Massachusetts and I'm in Maine. But she wears me out even looking at her. And she usually has some god-awful sleaze of a boyfriend in tow who doesn't wash and uses controlled substances."     "Giddy's boyfriends won't be on campus, and she can do the boyfriend scene after hours, none of which will bother me as long as I have my own space."     Alex, one of the world's optimists, shook his head. "Don't jump on it until after Christmas. That's in five days. Something around here is bound to turn up. It always does."     But as the determined jollity of Christmas, the faculty parties, the hospital eggnog events, the Christmas pageant featuring assorted nieces and nephews, the family gatherings and dinners arrived, briefly flourished, and vanished, no other job offered itself, and Sarah called Giddy and accepted the offer from Miss Merritt's School. Carlisle, Massachusetts, is one of those towns within the Boston orbit that managed to maintain a semi-rural character and so attracts those citizens who admire lichen-covered stone walls, white or buff-colored clapboard houses, and narrow, winding roads shaded by mature oaks and maples and conifers. It is a town that somehow has held its commercial presence to two auto repair services, a couple of real estate offices, and a small deli named Daisy's Market. A riffling through the pages of the Carlisle phone book informs visitors that although the town has not sullied itself with fast-food drive-ins, low-life cafés, or warehouse merchandisers, it is possible to engage the services of a calligrapher, a film maker, a choreographer, several graphic designers, a poet, a storyteller, a maker of handcut wooden jigsaw puzzles, as well as a cellist, a teacher of the bassoon, the flute, and a specialist in decorative embroidery. For those who wish to eat out or have a need to visit a hardware store or a hospital, the Carlisle traffic circle--actually an irregular triangle of granite and grass below a sloping green--sends the driver spinning off toward the markets of Concord, Acton, Westford, and Chelmsford, or to Billerica and Bedford. Or beyond, to those magnets of culture, history, and inner city turmoil, Boston and Cambridge.     Beyond this traffic circle, at respectable distances, stand the Gleason Public Library, the firehouse, the town offices, the post office, a public school, a police station, a Congregational church, a Unitarian church, and St. Irene's Catholic Church. The town newspaper, the Carlisle Mosquito , diligently reports on the events and personalities in the town, and the Boston Globe , the Boston Herald , the Wall Street Journal , and The New York Times keep some of the townspeople in touch with a wider world.     And this wider world included Miss Merritt's School, established, as the sign outside of the administration building--Lockwood Hall--announced, in the year of 1861. And because of this fateful date the entering class of thirty-five girls, housed in a red brick, three-story structure--formerly a tavern--would always remember that part of their extracurricular duties included the rolling of bandages and the knitting of socks for the Army of the Potomac. Now the girls came from all of North America, from Mexico, South America, the islands of the Caribbean, and several from European and Asian countries--all of them lending, as they walked about town, by reason of accent and color, a diverse and global look to a New England village. Sarah, arriving slightly after one o'clock on January the third, Sunday, felt a sense of coming home. She had lived in Carlisle through her early teen years, lived in fact on School Street, the Congregational church on one side and the woods that marked one edge of the Merritt School property on the other.     But proximity, for children, often means if not contempt, at least boredom. Sarah had seen the girls going about the village in their navy blue school jackets, had watched them pound up and down the field hockey and soccer fields, but had not wanted to be part of a too familiar scene. She had gone to the local public school and, when of high school age, begged to go away to boarding school--please, please, don't send me next door to Miss Merritt's. Her mother had just landed a big contract in New Hampshire--she was a landscape architect--and would be much away from home, and her father, now an environmental consultant for the Department of Interior, was always traveling, so both agreed, and Sarah had spent four reasonably contented years at a school very much like Miss Merritt's.     Now she took the time to drive slowly past her old family house, found it enlarged by a porch, painted yellow, and on the snow-covered lawn saw and heard three shouting children and a barking golden retriever. For a moment, overcome by a wave of nostalgia, she toyed with the idea of revisiting her childhood. But no, time was wasting. She tramped on the accelerator, drove down the curving road, and, after a quarter of a mile of leafless shrubbery and trees, turned into the main school gates--two tall stone columns, each marked with a brass plaque, and nearby a sign sticking out of a melting mound of snow that announced a speed limit of fifteen miles per hour. It was really, she thought, like seeing the whole place with new eyes, coming as a stranger who would be soon earning part of her daily bread as part of the preparatory school machine.     She took her time and drove slowly around the school, noting four green-shuttered, white clapboard dormitories, the two brick Greek revival houses, the new Alexander Library, the glass and steel science hall, and the Nakatani Art Center, as well as a number of smaller shingled and semi-shingled houses scattered haphazardly among the more imposing buildings. Circling about, turning behind and beyond buildings, Sarah decided it was almost a film setting: a town within a town.     In this, Sarah was not much off the mark. Over the years the school had, by hook and occasionally by crook, gobbled up a fair amount of property, complete with houses, barns, fields, and streams, and now sported some thirty acres on School Street (named for the public grammar school that still held sway a short distance north of the Congregational church). Miss Merritt's acres now held not only the school buildings but a variety of playing fields, plus a large wooded section complete with pond. That the pond played host to breeding mosquitos and that the small, roving deer herd supported a population of Lyme disease ticks was a frequent subject of friction between town and gown, among anxious parents, animal lovers, and the environmentally sensitive biology faculty.     On Sarah's third whirl around the campus, through the tangle of narrow roads that, wiggled between buildings and past odd plots of ground decorated with heaps of melting snow, Giddy appeared in a parking space by one of the brick buildings. She was waving her arms and shouting a welcome. Sarah pulled to a stop and Patsy let out a howl of joy--Giddy was an old friend. Giddy waved a mittened hand in greeting.     Giddy, tall and broad-shouldered, was a woman built for kicking balls, lifting weights, and hoisting kayaks. Today, in a navy quilted jacket her neck wound about with a yellow and black striped scarf, she looked more like the chief of a wrestling team than the art instructor, the job for which she was hired. But Giddy both coached sports teams and produced minute and delicate woodcuts of a botanical nature--a recent shift from her early oeuvre, heroically sized oils featuring tormented landscapes and frenzied oceans.     "Hey, Sarah," shouted Giddy--Giddy often shouted. "Pull over there." She pointed to a parking space marked with a "Reserved for Faculty" sign.     Sarah pulled into the space, and Giddy wrenched her passenger door open and grabbed a duffel bag. "I'll take this," said Giddy, "and you grab the rest of your stuff. I've got half an hour until I have to go over to the art building and set up for tomorrow. Life class--well, just large sections of the human body. You can't get away with total nudity in boarding school because some parents would raise holy hell. Here's Gregory House. It's not bad. High ceilings and a lot of windows. A laundry in the basement. Kids do their own clothes these days, or at least they're supposed to, but from the look of some of them I'd say that some of the jeans and T-shirts will rot on their backs. Freda Cohen--she teaches math--and husband Joel Cohen--he's photography--are the house parents. Both pretty mellow."     "Wait up," called Sarah as Giddy began striding in the direction of a three-storied building complete with Doric columns and green shutters. "Patsy needs to sniff. And pee. Get his bearings."     Giddy turned around and grinned. "Patsy will fit in just fine. Lots of dogs around. Particularly Madame Guillotine's animal. He's called Szeppi, which isn't exactly a French name. Actually, one of the best things about Madame is her dog. He's kind of neat."     Sarah, after a brief tour around a stand of spruce trees with Patsy, caught up with Giddy. "Do I have classes tomorrow? After all, it's Monday."     "Right, so pull yourself together. The first day of the semester is a little chaotic. Okay, here we are. Use the side vestibule door, everyone does. Kids come in here or through the back. Classrooms are in the basement along with the laundry and heaven knows what else."     Giddy jerked open the door, and Sarah walked in pulling Patsy, her wheeled suitcase bumping over the threshold of the glass-enclosed entry.     A sudden screech. A third party had arrived.     A black, curly-coated hurricane on four legs flung itself onto the scene. Was pulled back by red leash and a second screech. And then, restraining the excited animal by repeated jerks on his leash, the black-clad figure of Madame Grace Marie-Henriette Carpentier appeared.     Sarah hauled Patsy to the door of the vestibule, and Giddy reached for the collar of the newcomer. "Miss Lester," said the woman, "where did this dog come from? We do not need any more dogs in Gregory House."     "Hello there, Madame Carpentier," said Giddy cheerfully. "Meet Patsy. He's a sort of Irish wolfhound, and he belongs to Sarah Deane. She's a cousin or a cousin-in-law of mine, and she's taking Rachel Himmelfarb's classes for the rest of the year. Sarah, this is Madame Carpentier. She runs the Language Division."     Sarah, listening to Giddy, was able to make a quick examination of the famous--or infamous--Grace Carpentier. The black cloak, seen at close quarters, turned out to be a handsome wool cape, decorated on its collar by a cameo brooch. It was, Sarah thought, the sort of cape that Bela Lugosi might have worn when on the prowl as Dracula. The cape's owner wore a dark purple wool hat that set off a face for which the term "sharp" was entirely inadequate. The nose was a beak, the lips were thin and colorless, the eyebrows dark, the chin pointed, the eyes brown and now shooting sparks in Sarah's direction. Around the face, with its high cheekbones and wide forehead, appeared a rim of black hair pulled back under the hat's protecting brim.     Sarah advanced with her hand extended. "Hello, Madame Carpentier." Seeing the frown that appeared, she throttled a remark about having heard so much about her and ended weakly by saying how nice it was to meet one of the faculty before she'd even had time to unpack.     Grace Carpentier ignored Sarah's outstretched hand. "So, you are keeping that animal on campus?" she demanded crossly.     "Why, yes," said Sarah, taken aback. "I was told there were other dogs at the school, and Patsy is perfectly harmless. He's just big. He was a stray I found in Texas and about to be put to sleep. He'd been abandoned." This story, Sarah had found, won minds and softened hearts.     But not the heart of Madame Carpentier. "We have already at this school enough dogs," she snapped. "I suggest you find out if you will be allowed to keep this animal here." Madame Carpentier gave another jerk at her leash, said in a softer voice, " Alors , Szeppi, come," and strode off in the direction of a rise of ground that in the spring must have been a garden, but now showed a wasteland of brown shrubbery and a snow-frosted, trellised archway.