Louise Penny’s Still Life
Headline, 2005

Some of you might recall my eye-rolling, woulda-been-snarky-if-I-wasn’t-so-darned-Canadian letter to The Public Library late-spring this year.

I offer this post to balance the scales, for there is another staff member there whom I actually look forward to seeing behind the counter. She started a conversation with me last year about one of the Steig Larsson books, and we have chatted about mysteries whenever I’ve seen her since, most recently when she recommended the Louise Penny series.

(Now quite likely this prevailing reticence says as much about me as it does about the staff, but I have only ever had two other library workers start conversations with me about books in my history of using some of the 99 branches of the library in this city, so this woman really does stand out. Although I must say — and this is borne out by Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report — that I would probably be reluctant to start conversations with the reading public too.)

But this mystery-loving library worker took a chance and started a conversation and got me good and hooked on Louis Penny’s Three Pines series. Which makes me good and grateful.

One of the most appealing elements of the series is the setting, rural Quebec, in Three Pines.

“Three Pines wasn’t on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road. Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in this valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it usually found their way back. And Thanksgiving, in early October, was the perfect time. The weather was unusually crisp and clear, the summer scents of old garden roses and phlox were replaced by murky leaves, woodsmoke and roast turkey.”

You’ve got to love the Narnia reference, no?

So there are little charming bits like this, and there is the overall appeal of the setting, but what really makes the series work for me is the characterization, the attention paid to the emotional underpinnings of the crime(s) in this novel.

For the most part, this is integrated into the narrative, but here is a passage that reveals this more clearly: “Few people understood so quickly that most premeditated murders were about rancid emotions, greed, jealousy, fear, all repressed. As Gabri said, people don’t see it coming, because the murderer is a master at image, at the false front, at presenting a reasonable, even placid exterior. But it masked a horror underneath. And that’s why the expression he saw most on the faces of victims wasn’t fear wasn’t anger. It was surprise.”

Something else I appreciate about the novel is the way Penny involves her characters and her readers in solving the crime. “After she left Gamache went back to his book, flipping to the dog-eared page and staring at the illustration. It was possible. Just possible. He paid for his drink, shrugged into his field coat and left the warmth of the room to head into the cold and damp and approaching dark.”

With a good mystery, I don’t so much like to solve it, as to feel as though I’m part of the solution without actually having to do any work for it. So this approach works well; I can see that Gamache has had an epiphany and I’m caught up in the possibility of it, but I don’t have to think too hard because he’s already a bee in his bonnet, so I can sit back and read.

And rest easy knowing that Gamache is on the case. He’s a principled sort: a bit bristly, but I like him. Here he is talking to his superintendent, about an earlier case. “True, I was wrong. But I believed the uncle had done it. That was a mistake. This is different. This would be deliberately arresting someone I believe did not commit the crime. I can’t do it.”

Brêbeuf knows that Gamache will dig in his proverbial heels, but he gives it a shot. I suspect my infatuation with Three Pines will continue largely as is, but I expect my interest in the working relationships amongst the police to be of particular interest as I read on in this series by Louise Penny.

Have you tried this series? Or recently discovered another for yourself that has captured your interest?

Companion Reads:
Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal and Lise Delorme series, beginning with Forty Words for Sorrow

This post coincides with an IFOA Round Table with Louise Penny today. This is just one of several events this Sunday: please see the IFOA site for details and ticket information.