Canadian writer Louise Penny turned to novels after a successful career as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is the author of the acclaimed mystery series featuring Chief Inspector Gamache and his team from the Surete du Quebec. The sixth book in the series, Bury Your Dead, comes out in September. Penny’s mysteries have won awards and high critical praise.
Her first in the series, Still Life, won the New Blood Dagger in Britain and the Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel. The New York Times Book Review noted of her novels: “Although Penny is no slouch at constructing a whodunit puzzle, her great skill is her ability to create a charming mise-en-scène and inhabit it with complex characters.” Other reviewers have compared her to Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James, and Elizabeth George, not bad company. Of her sixth in the series, Booklist declared: “Penny’s first five crime novels in her Armand Gamache series have all been outstanding, but her latest is the best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling….Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed and remarkably moving mysteries in years.” “Bring on the awards,” said Kirkus Reviews.
Let’s start out with a description of your connection to the province of Quebec and the territory to the south of Montreal.
My husband, Michael and I moved south of Montreal ten years ago, after spending all our lives in various cities. We were looking for a quiet place in the country, a place we could exhale. And we found it in the area known as the Eastern Townships. I never expected I’d love it so much it would inspire me to write about it, and create the fictional village of Three Pines.
What things about the Eastern Townships make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I’m not sure it’s unique – but it touches my heart, with mountains and lakes and forests. It feels like a place out of a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. A magical place. It also has the advantage of being both French and English, linguistically but also culturally. Where across the border in northern Vermont people have coffees in restaurants, here we have cafe au laits in bistros. There’s a richness here, of language and culture, of music, of food – there’s also a richness of linguistic tensions to explore. The long simmering stress between the French and English communities.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
No, it was definitely intentional. I wanted readers to be under no illusion they were anywhere other than Canada, and specifically Quebec. I knew I wanted to set the first four books in different seasons, so that readers, going from book to book, would get a sense of what it feels like, tastes like, smells like to live a year in Quebec.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
It’s always conscious but I try to have a light hand, not over do it. Rely more on the ‘telling detail’. But it’s always there. I’m hoping it’s handled like highlights in a painting, or grace notes in a piece of music. Some light touch that brings it alive. A dab here, a croissant there.
How does Chief Inspector Gamache interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your Gamache?
My protagonist is Chief Inspector Gamache, head of homicide for the Surete du Quebec. He’s a Montrealer, so when he visits Three Pines he’s very much an outsider, especially in the early works. As the series has gone on he’d developed relationships with the villagers. His second-in-command, though, has not. While both men are French, interacting with the mostly Anglo population of the village, Gamache is more sophisticated where Beauvoir is deeply suspicious of the English, whom he considers unstable and perhaps insane. Mostly because while he understands the language he doesn’t at all understand the culture or the choices.
I felt strongly that I didn’t want Gamache, in the beginning especially, to be the ‘stranger in a strange land.’ I felt that was too well-worn territory. Nor did I want him to be the pompous, arrogant big city cop to their villagers bumpkins. It was important that he be interested and respectful and the villagers be thoughtful, intelligent, sophisticated – though of different backgrounds. I didn’t want to fall into cliches.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I was a little concerned about this before the first book came out. While I treat the area with respect and affection, I wasn’t sure if the locals would see it as an intrusion. Happily, they’ve been very generous and supportive. I’ve only heard a few, quite natural, rumblings. Indeed, the local town just had it’s first annual literary festival and they asked me to be the guest of honour – which I gladly accepted and had a blast.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I wish I had a funny, or failing that, a true one, but I don’t. Since my location, Three Pines is fictional I get to be God, and therefore am infallible.
Of your Gamache novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
There’s a deliberate sense of magical realism about Three Pines. It’s described as not being on any map, and seems to appear, like Narnia or Brigadoon, out of the blue, and only to people lost. Here’s how Gamache, in Still Life, first sees Three Pines:
“As he sat quietly and let the village happen around him he was impressed by how beautiful it was, these old homes facing the green, with their mature perennial gardens and trees. By how natural everything looked, undesigned. The pall of grief that settled on this community was worn with dignity and sadness and a certain familiarity. The village was old, and you don’t get to be old without knowing grief. And loss.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I love Christie and Josephine Tey – and Georges Simenon’s Maigret series. My books are often described as Christie-eque, but I think a closer fit are the Maigret books. He set his in Paris, many of them post-war, so they can be a little grim, but they have a spectacular sense of place. He’s a master.
What’s next for Gamache?
The next book is actually set partly in Three Pines but mostly in Quebec City, within the old walls, in deep, dark, winter. Quebec City in winter is just enchanting.
Louise, many thanks again for taking time to chat with Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Louise Penny, visit her homepage.