An idyllic village lies nestled in the French-Canadian countryside. Named after the trees in the village green, Three Pines is populated by friendly, eccentric people: artists Clara and Peter, bookstore owner Myrna, sharp-mouthed poet Ruth, and loveable couple Gabri and Olivier, who run the bed and breakfast and the bistro. The village is also regularly plagued by murders. Fortunately, the brilliant and gentle Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, and his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are close by to solve them.
Such is the setting of the series of novels by award-winning Canadian author Louise Penny. Beloved by fans the world over, her series has sold over ten million copies. The first, Still Life, was made into a movie, and will soon be serialised on Netflix. With an ever-growing fanbase, Penny somehow makes it believable that so much homicide can occur in such a small village.
Louise Penny (Canadian accent): The truth is, I genuinely did not think that the books would be published. I mean, I hoped... but I would have made Three Pines just a little bigger. I think, after the third book – and because, in fact, the fourth book is set somewhere else, there’s still Three Pines characters and some of it goes back – but I realised after the third book that Three Pines would not sustain the murder rate. Now if you look, most of the murders don’t actually happen (some of them do) but don’t happen there, but the characters are somehow involved and, you know, Gamache is involved, so every second book is primarily set somewhere else. It gives Three Pines a chance to repopulate.
Penny came to writing late in life. Born in Toronto in 1958, Still Life was published in 2005, when she was forty-seven. She worked as a journalist and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for eighteen years, until she decided to give it up to pursue her dream. It took her five years to complete her first novel. After failing to get it published, she entered the ‘Debut Dagger’, a UK-based competition organised by the Crime Writers Association aimed at debut writers. She came second out of eight hundred entries and never looked back. As she explains, her journalistic background proved useful in preparing her to write fiction.
Louise Penny: I was extremely lucky to have started at an early age as a journalist and learned deadlines and learned discipline and that has served me in good stead. And I set a word count, every day, a thousand words. This morning, I set the alarm, got up at 6:00, wrote a thousand words, tomorrow, set the alarm, get up at 6:00, write a thousand words, then I come out into the world. It’s a great life.
Penny wanted to be a writer since she was a young girl. She was a fearful child, afraid of many things, but most of all spiders. The only place she felt safe was in her bedroom. One day, she was in bed reading Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. She loved the book, but then realised that Charlotte was a spider.
Louise Penny: What happened in that moment changed my life. It was transcendent. What happened was, in that instant, I realised that I loved Charlotte and I wanted nothing bad to happen to her and, in that moment, my cardinal fear was lifted and I understood – as a child whose entire day, whole life, is prescribed by the least fearful thing to be doing – to have the most fearful thing lifted was power beyond imagining. And I understood that the power rested in the book. It was the power of storytelling, the power of words and, from that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a writer because, if reading was that powerful, imagine how powerful writing was.
MOTIVATION IS KEY
Fear is a common theme in her books, but her own fear as an adult almost stopped her from trying to become an author.
Louise Penny: It took me a long time to grow out of the fears and I think what happened was, I became a journalist. I was just really too afraid to try to be a writer, because what happens if I try and fail. So, instead of writing a book, I came up with all sorts of excuses why I couldn’t. “I’m too busy, I’m too tired, I’ve got too many other things happening,” on and on and on, all of which were fairly legitimate, but we all know, if you really, really want to do something, you’ll do it. And what I really, really wanted to do was come up with excuses
Penny finally decided to take the plunge in 1996. Supported by her husband, she started working on a historical novel. She suffered from writer’s block, then made a radical change to crime fiction, the kind of books she loved reading by authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. Instead of Christie’s St. Mary Mead and Miss Marple, however, she created Three Pines and Armand Gamache. And now, millions of people lose themselves in her imaginary world based in Québec.
Louise Penny: Each of the first four books is intentionally set in a different season, because I wanted Québec to be a character, as well, and I wanted people who are reading it to get a sense, if they read the first four books in order, of what it’s like to live in Québec for a year. So, you get not only the different climates, but the different scents, the different smells... I wanted the books to be very sensuous in that regard, not sexual, but sensuous.
Penny’s books certainly give you a sense of the place and its culture. Now, with seventeen books in the series, she has branched out, co-writing a political thriller with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called State of Terror. Fans need not panic, however, as she is not done with Three Pines quite yet.
Louise Penny: Do you know, I love Gamache and I’m going to continue and it allows me to explore everything I want to explore.
A Great Reckoning
A Great Reckoning, the latest instalment of the Three Pines series, sees Inspector Gamanche return as the new Commissioner General of the Academy of the Sûreté. He leaves his beloved Three Pines to transform the training institute, eradicating the corrupting influences of former teachers. When a professor is found murdered, his faithful colleagues Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste and four cadets help him investigate the case. A map of Three Pines seems to indicate a link between the Academy and the small village. Beautifully written, Louise Penny weaves an intricate plot that touches on the true cost of war, respect for elders and their responsibility to guide the young.