By Ashly Moore Sheldon • August 24, 2021
Louise Penny's latest book, The Madness of Crowds, came out August 24, and her fans—that includes us!—are thrilled. At this point, it feels like a homecoming to return to the fictional village of Three Pines, located in the Canadian province of Québec (Penny's own stomping ground). Here we explore the award-winning Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series and some of the meaty themes that permeate the stories.
I wanted you to feel what it's like to live in Québec. And to do that I needed to make the books sensuous, to engage all your senses. So that you smell the musky woodsmoke and feel the scrape of the cold against your cheeks. You hear the rustle of the leaves and see with clarity the village green.
Although she had dreamed of being a writer since childhood, Penny didn't begin her literary career until her mid forties when she left her job as a journalist with the CBC.
Initially, Penny tried writing a historical novel, but didn't finish it. A longtime fan of mysteries and crime novels—Agatha Christie was an early influence—she eventually decided on that. The first thing she did before starting her first book, Still Life, was to draw a map of Three Pines, the setting for almost all the books in the series. (There are a few exceptions like All The Devils are Here, set in Paris.) She filled her village with characters whose company she would enjoy. This is, for Penny, the foundation of her books—a community of people who are essentially good.
Not everything buried is actually dead. For many, the past is alive.
Penny says that the character of Armand Gamache is modeled after her late husband Michael, as well as that of Atticus Finch. The seasoned homicide detective is gentle and kind, even after so many years of investigating violent crimes. A loving family man, he is principled and thoughtful, battling against the internal corruption of his police department, the Sûreté du Québec.
After Michael's death in 2016, the grieving author wasn't sure if she would be able to return to the character, but she found herself working on a new Gamache book, Kingdom of the Blind, within about six months. In a 2018 interview, she explains, "What I discovered was, far from losing Michael, Michael became immortal. I can visit him any time."
One great way to evoke the setting is through the cuisine, through the food, which changes season by season.
Penny says that while she's writing a book, she references both cookbooks and poetry books, using them to add depth to her stories. We'll get to the poetry in a moment, but one of the things we love the most about Penny's writing is her delectable descriptions of food, generally in scenes at the bistro or potlucks at central character Clara's home.
Penny explains that she uses these kinds of palpable, sensual details in order to drop the fourth wall and bring the reader right into the experience. Of course, when you write food as well as she does, it's inevitable that readers are going to want to experience the deliciousness for themselves. In 2016 after years of appeals, Penny published The Nature of the Feast, an e-cookbook of recipes from the books which you can get from the publisher of her Armand series. We're fans of the Apple and Avocado Salsa with Honey-Lime Dressing, which is from her similarly titled, The Nature of the Beast.
When someone stabs you it's not your fault that you feel pain.
Ruth Zardo, a poet from Three Pines, is an especially vivid character in the books. The curmudgeonly, foul-mouthed septuagenarian drinks excessively and pretends to hate everyone (while secretly longing for love). In the second book, A Fatal Grace, Ruth has just published a book of poetry called I'm FINE.
Ruth's poetry, much of it actually penned by fellow Canadian author Margaret Atwood from her Morning in the Burned House, is interwoven throughout the series adding yet another element of richness to the environment that Penny has created. Indeed, we readers yearn to visit this village and sit amongst these characters who have come to feel like beloved friends.
[My books are] not really about murder. They're about duality, the public face and the inner turmoil. The gap between what we're saying and what we're really thinking, between the pretty village setting and the violation that happens with these crimes.
Penny's books share some of the qualities of a cozy mystery, i.e. minimal violence and graphic language. A Trick of the Light is one of the cozier examples. However, the author shies away from this classification, generally describing her work as crime fiction. IMHO, Penny's books strike a nice balance between the comforts of cozy mysteries and the gritty drama of crime procedurals. They deal with bleak timely issues like PTSD, addiction, and systemic racism, but at the same time they are infused with high-minded humanitarianism and literary intelligence. We look forward to many more!