Louise Penny hits the heights with new “Three Pines” novel

How the Light Gets In tops the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller list. The CBC production of Still Life, the first Inspector Gamache novel, will air Sunday, September 15 at 8 pm on CBC.

How the Light Gets In tops the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller list. The CBC production of Still Life, the first Inspector Gamache novel, will air Sunday, September 15 at 8 pm on CBC.

Here’s a congratulatory shout-out to Canadian author Louise Penny, whom we’d like to claim as a major talent from our corner of the continent.

Penny is a former CBC journalist who took a mid-career turn to writing. Her popular Inspector Gamache series is back with its ninth title, which debuts at the top of the New York Times hardcover best-seller list this week. (It’s also number three on the combined print and e-book list.)

“How the Light Gets In” returns to Three Pines, the imaginary Eastern Township village in rural Quebec that so many readers wish was real.

Penny was featured on NCPR’s Readers and Writers in this program from November 16, 2012 to talk about installment #8, “The Beautiful Mystery”. She told co-hosts Jackie Sauter and Betsy Kepes her first book featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his squad of investigators was rejected (“Everywhere! Internationally!”) probably because publishers had doubts the whole French-Anglo social milieu would find interest outside of Quebec.

Of course, the exploration of universal themes within a distinct sense of place is a basic hallmark of engaging fiction – as Penny’s body of work proves time and time again.

While each of her books can stand alone, Penny admitted that she crafts them as a continuous thread. The back stories of plot and character connections are greatly enhanced by taking each installment in turn.

As one of those readers who can’t stand to read a series out-of-order, I had to go back to the starting line last fall. I’ve read 5 in fairly close succession at this point. And I must say, binge reading of titles that are normally spaced a year apart generates a few problems. Stylistic strengths become clear – but so do flaws.

Problem: it’s most unlikely one small village would ever have so many murders. Penny says she came to realize that and now sets every other book outside of Three Pines of necessity. This wise decision is a great plus as it allows curious readers to explore other parts of Quebec too. (Thank you for that, Ms. Penny!)

Problem: Inspector Gamache heads a crack Sûreté du Québec murder squad, usually based in Montreal, a large city of about 3 million. Yet they are invariable available when a body drops in rural Three Pines. Furthermore, no other murders intrude until the one at hand is resolved. (Boy, don’t real police just wish case loads were that well-ordered?!)

Actually, it is police work that strikes me as the most problematic aspect of the series. It comes across like a fantasy, in the Marcus Welby school of entertainment. You know: a terribly wise, deeply compassionate father figure devotes his entire attention to specific patients (or murders, in this case). He mentors devoted underlings and “sees” into the soul of townspeople and suspects,  until as much healing as possible is attained – or is properly mourned, should the wounds prove untreatable. It’s nice – very comforting – but hardly realistic.

Likewise, the whole village seems to live at the charming bistro run by the endearing gay couple. How many residents of small rural communities do you know with that kind of time and disposable income? On the other hand, the culinary masterpieces they are served would get me to the bistro on a regular basis too! (Fine food consumed with good friends – the check never comes and someone else does the dishes, we can all dream, can’t we?)

I am also left wondering if Penny successfully conveys the true nuances of Canada and Quebec’s “two solitudes”, or if we just get the ‘I’m-still-learning’ views of an outsider.

Mind you, all views are perfectly valid in and of themselves. But a newcomer is simply less able to say what true Québécois may feel or think.

To beat that horse to death, there are many places in the world where newcomers are welcome – as Penny says she has been. But often times they are not considered to be “of ” that place until several generations have been invested there. Most of us already have some familiarity with the view from without. We sometimes crave deeper insights from true natives. Penny, it seems to me, cannot be that messenger. Though I still very much want to hear what she has to share.

Petty quibbles aside, what Penny nails (over and over again) are inner dimensions. Interior aspirations and personal struggles. The challenge of making good choices. Of learning how to do good work. How to handle mistakes and ego. The nature of relationships and how precious they are.

As Penny explained in her Readers and Writers program, “It takes no courage to be negative. It takes a whole lot of courage to be kind.” Penny also invests her books with the importance of place, seasons and nature as ways to feel grounded and nourished. (Or not.)

She wrestles with duality: good and evil and the way really good people also contend with inner demons. Jealousy. Resentment. Thwarted ambition. Even wild, hard-earned success comes with issues that require careful navigation.

In short, Penny’s work is like her characters: imperfect…but thoughtful, well-intended and highly engaging.

While many may be content with procedural steps of discovering who-done-it, for me at least, the best mystery writing strives to shed insight into the human condition. (As Penny put it, the ‘why” matters most of all in many things.)

Penny’s first book in the Inspector Gamache series, “Still Life” had been turned into a movie that will be aired on CBC Sunday Sept. 15th at 8 pm. (Here’s a sneak peak and interviews about creating Three Pines.) Penny says she resisted licensing her characters for dramatic purposes for a long time, because she cared about them too much to let them be rendered in a slip-shod way.

Video: Louise Penny and the actors and crew of the CBC production of “Still Life” talk about recreating the fictional Eastern Township village of Three Pines.

The producers of this effort succeeded because they persisted and made Penny an executive producer with consultative input on staying true to the work. (Penny told Sauter and Kepes the actor cast in the Inspector Gamache role, Nathaniel Parker, was not how she may have “seen” the character at first, but after watching him work she can hardly imagine it being anyone else.)

A fair number of those reading this post are well-caught up with Penny and her series. Others would do well to explore it afresh.

And I think I speak for many when I say it’s wonderful to see someone like Penny strike out to follow her muse and arrive at a new shore, with so much integrity and cheerful – even humble – success.


  1. Betsy Kepes says:

    Hi Lucy– Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of Penny’s works. I’m not usually a mystery reader but Penny’s novels are captivating, and well-written and fun.

    Somewhere I read that Penny quit her job at the CBC to write a “serious” book but had writer’s block for a year. It was when she let go of that ambition to be “literary” that she wrote her first mystery. Hooray for that!

  2. Want to watch the movie this Sunday. Is it going to be shown on CBS or where here in the USA? Please let me know ASAP. If I can’t watch it on TV,will I be able to buy the movie eventually? I am well and truly hooked!
    Thank you,Sara

    • Lucy Martin says:

      Sara, as far as I know it’s only being shown on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) so far. Are you able to pick that up yourself, or do you know someone who gets CBC on cable?

      It may be distributed further in some way after that, but I don’t have additional information at present. Good luck!

  3. Can’t wait. Love the books and Nathaniel Parker!