Last month I highlighted Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maise Dobbs” series and this month is dedicated to Canadian author Louise Penny and the wonderful world she has created in the fictional setting of Three Pines, a rural Canadian village south of Montreal, just kilometers from the Vermont border.
As Penny describes it, “The tiny fieldstone houses were built by the early settlers who cleared the land and yanked the stones from the earth. But most of the homes around the village green were made of rose-hued brick, built by the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, desperate for a sanctuary, hiding from a war they didn’t believe it.” Named for the three stately pines in the center of the village, present day Three Pines of her novels appears idyllic with no police force, no traffic lights, no sidewalks, no mayor. The place doesn’t have ordinary crime, just the worst possible crime — murder — and on quite a regular basis.
The first murder to shatter the inhabitants of Three Pines occurs in “Still Life,” first book in her series (2005), which won numerous prestigious awards such as The New Blood Dagger, the Arthur Ellis, the Anthony, the Barry Award and Dilys Award.
It is here that we meet the interesting residents and characters who continue to evolve in future books. Artist Peter, who is often struggling with jealousy, not of a lover, but of the realization that his wife Clara may be the true artist in the family; Myrna who runs the used bookstore; Sarah and her delicious boulangarie; Ruth Zardo, the poet who is always good for a laugh with her inappropriate comments and insults; and Bistro owners Gabri and Olivier (Caution: if you read all eight books straight through you will probably add a few inches to your waistline as the descriptive meals coming out of the bistro are tantalizing.) Hungry or not, your taste buds will be awakened. For example, fettuccine with shrimps and scallops sautéed in garlic and olive oil or a rich cheddar and apple soup, or a fruit-stuffed Rock Cornish game hen, done on the spit, or the seafood buffet with herring roe on kelp, pepper-smoked salmon, crab cakes, halibut, with bread fresh from the boulangerie. It appears that crime solving in Three Pines involves a lot of pondering over café de lait and warm croissants.
And that brings us to Chief Inspector Armund Gamache of the Surete du Quebec and his unique approach to solving a murder. “To catch a killer, you don’t necessarily move forward, you move back. Into the past. That is where the crime begins. Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, has lodged inside the murderer. And begun to fester. What kills can’t be seen, it’s not a gun, a knife or a fist. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled, gone wild and waiting for a chance to strike.” As Gamache tries to uncover the source of that emotion, he befriends the villagers who often supply more evidence than fingerprints or DNA. Gamache, of course, has his own demons and fears. As his assistant Beauvoir observes, it is because of his own human frailties that Gamache is able to recognize them in others.
On a deeper level, the crime provides a means for Penny’s unusually empathic, all-too-fallible lead to unearth truths about human passions and weaknesses while avoiding simple answers.
I had the pleasure of meeting Penny as she was promoting one of her early books at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. She is charming and genuine, often with self-deprecating humor, which perhaps explains one of the reasons she is able to create and develop such fascinating three-dimensional characters. As one reviewer says, “The books go beyond just being murder mysteries and become more about how we interact with each other and how we deal with things like ambition, fear, love and death.” And I might add there’s some funny stuff and clever dialogue, too.
Now, eight books into the series she never disappoints but seems to become a more skillful writer with each book. Perhaps this quote from her daily blog, which is as interesting as her books, www.louisepenny.com, explains why she continues to receive accolades and awards with each book: “There are times when I’m in tears writing. Not because I’m so moved by my own writing, but out of gratitude that I get to do this. In my life as a journalist I covered deaths and accidents and horrible events, as well as the quieter disasters of despair and poverty. Now, every morning I go to my office, put the coffee on, fire up the computer and visit my imaginary friends, Gamache and Beauvoir and Clara and Peter. What a privilege it is to write.”
And what a privilege it is for us the readers to enjoy this Three Pines world Penny has created.
Her titles in the order they are published are as follows: “Still Life,” 2005; “A Fatal Grace,” 2007; “The Cruelest Month,” 2008; “The Brutal Telling,” 2009; “A Rule Against Murder,” 2009; “Bury Your Dead,” 2010; “A Trick of Light,” 2011; and “The Beautiful Mystery, 2012 (Aug. 28 release).
Although each book can be read on its own as a complete mystery, I recommend starting with the first one to fully understand and appreciate the development of the recurring characters.
Penny will be signing her new book, “The Beautiful Mystery,” at the Poisoned Pen, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd. in Scottsdale, on Sept. 3.
Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.