Cheryl Solimini

penny_louise_cr_Ian-Crysler_smallIt takes a village—and its creator, award-winning author Louise Penny—to give this new series of Canadian cozies its well-honed edge

Photo: Ian Crysler

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 the valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once usually found their way back.

First-time visitors to the uncharted hamlet engineered by mystery writer Louise Penny may be forgiven for thinking that they have wandered into Christie country. Cozy English–style cottages of fieldstone, clapboard, or brick and a “business district” composed simply of a bakery, bookstore, general store, and café all rim a well-tended green anchored by the trio of towering evergreens that give the tiny town its name. Until the inevitable unnatural death disturbs the peace, the only reason to bar the doors here would be to keep neighbors from dumping off their overflow of summer squash.

But look out for the few choice swear words, often uttered in French and by citizens well past middle age. That couple who owns the bistro? If Gabriel and Olivier do choose to marry, at least they already live in a country that recognizes same-sex unions. Local murder victims tend to be dispatched not by a genteel dose of strychnine, but by an errant arrow let fly in the brilliantly autumnal woods, or an elaborate electrocution during a curling match. All are rendered in prose graceful but with an edge—rather like a figure skater on the village’s picture-perfect pond in winter.

In Still Life (2006 in the US), Penny first brought American readers across the Vermont border into Canada’s Eastern Townships region. Her second mystery, A Fatal Grace, finds its way back into this area south of Montreal that was first settled by the French and then by colonists loyal to King George III during the American Revolution. “Three Pines is meant to have the tone of this part of Quebec,” says Penny, a Townships resident herself. “The United Empire Loyalists who came across from the States were in many ways more British than the British, so they set up towns that were, in very broad strokes, modeled on English villages. They are little communities unto themselves, very hermetic, very pretty.”

But unlike her fictional suburb, most do not have village greens. “That’s been pointed out more than once by people in the area,” she laughs. “But it was really meant to be my ideal village, set in my ideal geography. I think I imbue Three Pines with a kind of magical realism.”

penny_stilllifeEven the village’s name has a mystical origin. An elderly woman sitting beside Penny at a church supper mentioned that her husband’s ancestors had long ago planted three pine trees on the family homestead as the customary signal to the Loyalists that they were in safe territory. “But then other people from the Townships who have read Still Life say they’ve never heard that story before, so I have no idea if it’s true,” adds Penny. “It’s real imitation folklore.”

Local history also allows Penny to capture the cultural contrast in a province often divided by language. “At times I’ll be in a store speaking in French and the person speaking to me is speaking in French and at the end we realize we’re both Anglophones,” she says. “Here in Quebec, there is always an awareness that we are not the same. There are degrees of tension depending on the political situation, but I hope the impression I give is that, except for people who are unreasonable, this is a place of tolerance.”

It took Penny quite a while to find her own way to Three Pines.

For more than 20 years, she was a radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, covering hard news, economics, and political and social issues in several different cities. “If something went wrong, then you were on our program,” says Penny. “But it was really interesting because I got to see, hear, and watch people at the extremes, when things were either going really good in their lives or really bad in their lives.” After all that listening, though, she realized that she needed to find her own voice. “As a radio host, I didn’t really talk or write much. I started to feel that I had sublimated all my opinions for the opinions of others and wondered whether I even had any personal opinions anymore,” she says. “I had been taking things in for so long, and now it was time to start processing it and put it back out.”

So in 1998, she turned in her microphone and, encouraged by her husband, Michael, the head of hematology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, whom she’d met in her mid-30s, pursued her childhood dream of writing fiction. “Initially I thought I was going to write—of course!—the greatest novel ever written and win a Pulitzer Prize. Highways would be named after me and it would all be very embarrassing but I would cope,” she says cheerfully. “I made this announcement all over the studio about what I was going to do. So naturally for the next three years people would come up to me and ask, ‘So how’s the book going?’ And I’d say, ‘Fine, fine.’”

In reality, Penny was blindsided by writer’s block. “I had set the bar so high that I got my knickers in a twist,” she says. Only after she and her husband had moved to the country did she find her inspiration, in a community teeming with artists. “I’m embarrassingly impressionable. Surround me with good, kind, thoughtful, passionate, creative people, and that brings out the best in me,” she says. “My friends helped me realize that I was trying to write the wrong book, this serious literary fiction, but then I looked on my nightstand and all I had piled there were murder mysteries.”

To write what she loved to read, Penny drew on her personal observations as well as incidents from her radio days: One of the central mysteries in Still Life—why a warm, kindly villager never let anyone enter her living room—came out of a story Penny once reported on in Quebec. “Most of my writing is based on something real. I like to think of it as a kind of homage or inspiration, though other people might consider it stealing,” she says. “I consider myself a kind of Dr. Frankenstein, but in a good way. I take an arm here and a leg there and a head there and cobble together all these vital organs from other people and their experiences.”

penny_trickofthelightStill, she is very careful in the fictional company she keeps, populating her plots with artists, poets, innkeepers, and just plain nice folks who look out for each other. “When I started my novel, I knew the chances of being published were minuscule, so I thought the writing of it has to be enough,” she explains. “I knew I needed to write a book that I’d really enjoy writing, with characters I would choose as friends, in a community I would choose to live in.”

Her detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, had to be worth spending time with too. “At first he was going to be some closet coke fiend, a tortured guy,” she says. “But I didn’t want to come down every morning and climb into his head. So I created someone who is kindly and strong, and has integrity and isn’t a bully, and has a sense of humor, and is literate without being pompous, and loves his food—someone not unlike my own husband, oddly enough!”

Though all likeable, her fictional citizens, such as painters Peter and Clara Morrow, are realistically flawed: “Initially I had thought that Peter and Clara would pretty much be the perfect marriage…and then cracks started appearing, which of course made them much more interesting and fun to follow.” One of her most delightful denizens is the acerbic, cane-wielding Ruth Zardo, whose uncensored outbursts are usually offset by samples of her sublimely sensitive poetry. (Ruth’s verses, Penny confesses, are not penned by her but by local and well-known Canadian writers, including Margaret Atwood, and used with permission.) All have secrets and past troubles that are hinted at—and that may or may not revealed by book’s end.

That these usually gentle folk settle in Three Pines is no accident. “Some people who wander in clearly have another agenda, but most who find it are lost in some way,” explains Penny. “I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. It’s a place that has chosen its society wisely. It becomes self-selecting; there is a reason these people are there in this particular village. It’s known grief and sorrow and will again. Yet there’s something potentially redemptive here—because I believe in that. I think bad things do happen but it’s in an envelope of many blessings.”

At intervals within the narrative, Penny pulls these characters aside for individual vignettes that allow a peek inside each one’s thoughts. “I like to give insights into how different personalities function, and also their perceptions of what’s happening and their perceptions of each other—and how sometimes they can get them all wrong,” she explains.

Despite three years of honing her first manuscript, Penny suffered “an exercise in humility” when she began looking for a publisher and sent queries to top agents in New York and London. “I thought that, if I’m going to be rejected, I might as well be rejected by the best.” And she was, time and time again, for two more years. Some responders advised that she switch to a first-person point of view; another went so far as to state that no one would ever be interested in a murder mystery set in Canada. Penny sighs, “What do you say to that? ‘Yes, they will! Yes, they will! And so’s your mother!’”

After a small press in Toronto turned down the manuscript, “I really believed I had reached the end,” she says. “I would have just put it in a drawer and gone back to gardening and would never have written another word.”

penny_maffini_Agathas2011_smallThen she learned Still Life was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger, an award presented yearly by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain for the best unpublished crime novel. Though her book came in second, Penny landed a London agent. After its release in the UK and Canada in 2005 and the U.S. in 2006, Still Life went on to win Britain’s New Blood Dagger and Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, the US’ Dilys Award from The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, as well as making Kirkus Review’s Top 10 mysteries list for 2006. Now, to ensure that other worthy novels see the light of day, Penny is working with the Crime Writers of Canada for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Mystery each year.

COOL BREEZE FROM UP NORTH Canadians Louise Penny (left)
and Mary Jane Maffini are on a roll. Shortly after picking up
2011 Agatha Awards at Malice Domestic (pictured) for
respectively, Best Novel and Short Story, they won Arthur Ellis
Awards from Crime Writers of Canada.

Writer’s block is no longer a problem for her. “You always have bad days when the muse isn’t there, and you’re flailing around, and the characters are meandering and bumping into each other,” Penny says. “But for the most part it’s an amazing high!” She laughs at herself. “Now I can’t stop writing. Soon people are going to be saying, ‘Stop, for God’s sake! Send her away!’”

No chance of that. A Fatal Grace (titled Dead Cold in Canada), in which a self-styled design diva à la Martha Stewart meets her end in an electrical “accident” at Christmastime, will be followed by The Cruelest Month, as the Three Pines regulars hold a séance at the gruesome Victorian mansion in town. “They decide they’ve had enough of this old horror on the hill,” Penny reveals. “They are going to free whatever mean spirits are there. Their intentions are good—until, of course, the murder. The old Hadley house will have its way!” As in all her books, this one takes place during a significant holiday. “This time it’s Easter, and gets back to the idea of redemption. Much of the story is about being given a second chance, with Easter and spring bringing up the whole notion of rebirth.”

Her fourth, as-yet-untitled mystery will offer a slight change of scene when the Morrows head to a remote resort for Peter’s family reunion and find a body on the lakeshore. But they won’t be away from Three Pines for long. Will it eventually rival St. Mary’s Mead, where the corpses seem to outnumber the residents? “Yes, we’re going to keep going back to Three Pines,” laughs Penny, “because frankly I love it.”

Readers fortunate enough to find Three Pines and Louise Penny’s carefully wrought mysteries once will find their way back too.

A Louise Penny Reading List

A Trick of the Light (2011)
Bury Your Dead (2010)
*Winner of Agatha Award for best novel of 2010 and Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award
The Brutal Telling (2009)
*Winner of Agatha Award for best novel of 2009
A Rule Against Murder (a.k.a. The Murder Stone) (2008)
NY Times bestseller, nominated for Arthur Ellis Award
The Cruelest Month (2007)
*Winner of Agatha Award for best novel of 2008, nominated for Anthony Award, McAvity Award, and Barry Award for best novel of 2008
A Fatal Grace (a.k.a. Dead Cold) (2006)
*Winner of Agatha Award for best novel of 2007
Still Life (2005)
*Winner of "New Blood" Dagger Award, Arthur Ellis Award, Dilys Award, Anthony Award, and Barry Award

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.