Woe be unto the free-range American reader who casually picks up any of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, set in the French-Canadian village of Three Pines, expecting a “Murder, She Wrote”-style cozy. The author erupts at the mere suggestion.
“To call them cozies is to completely misread!” she protests by phone from her home in Sutton, a French-speaking village in Québec, east of Montreal. “I get very annoyed at anyone who calls them cozies, or even traditional. I think it’s facile for people to think that anything set in a village must, per force, be superficial and simplistic.”
Far, far from either, Penny’s addictive series may be the quintessential anti-cozy, centered as it is on a village that bears more resemblance to Twin Peaks than Cabot Cove and an erudite chief inspector of the Sûreté du Québec whose demons are never far behind him.
Publisher Minotaur Books says more than three million copies of the Inspector Gamache books have been sold worldwide since the series debuted in 2006, with growing sales and buzz for each new release. Penny’s 11th Gamache mystery, The Nature of the Beast, marks her largest first printing ever.
As series devotees know, the brooding, wounded Armand Gamache left the Sûreté and retired to Three Pines after tearing the lid off of internal corruption in 2013’s How the Light Gets In, only to resurface last year, shaken but not deterred, in The Long Way Home. Penny focuses as much on whether Gamache will overcome his demons as on whether his next demon will be his last.
In The Nature of the Beast, 9-year-old Laurent Lepage goes missing after annoying the townspeople yet again with another of his signature far-fetched stories, this one about a monster and an enormous gun hidden deep in the surrounding woods. When the boy’s body is found, the search for his killer leads authorities to the unthinkable: an enormous rocket launcher, expertly concealed, provenance unknown.
Who built it? How? And most importantly, why? It’s just the knotty puzzler to lure Gamache and his ever-inquisitive wife, Reine-Marie, out of early retirement.
A similar unfathomable horror—the terrorist attacks of 9/11—proved to be a game-changer for Penny as well. Back in 1996, after jettisoning an 18-year on-air career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and winning a 14-year battle with alcoholism, she’d retreated with her physician husband Michael to the Eastern Townships to try her hand at historical fiction. But five years in, she was getting nowhere.
“I realized I was writing for the wrong reason; I was trying to impress my family, my former colleagues—trying to write the best book ever written. The judgment of others has played a terrible role in my life for much of my life, and I became frozen,” she recalls.
Shortly after 9/11, a desultory glance at her bedside table helped dispel her ennui.
“Like most people, I read catholically; I read just about anything. But among my pile of books were crime novels. I remember sitting on my bed looking at them and thinking, that’s it! I will simply write a book I would want to read,” she says.
Those tenuous, post-traumatic days even inspired where she would set her mysteries.
“I was feeling, like the rest of the world, fairly vulnerable and thinking that the world might be a dangerous place, and I wanted to create a place where there was a sense of belonging and community,” she recalls. “The books aren’t about murder; they’re about life and the choices that we make, and what happens to good people when such a harrowing event comes into their lives. It’s an exploration of human nature, I hope.”
Re-inspired by her new direction, Penny tripped out of the gate by shooting for a perfect first draft.
“The danger, at least for the first couple of books, was that I had to get it right the first time. As a result, it paralyzed me because it didn’t allow for creativity, for flights of fancy, for inspiration,” she says.
That’s when her years of journalism with the CBC crashed the party, lending offbeat spontaneity and quirky humor to the otherwise serious task at hand.
“My first drafts are piles of something very soft and smelly. They’re huge, almost double the size of the final book,” she chuckles. “I throw everything in—I have to—and then I edit, because I know I’m good at editing. That’s part of the beauty of having a big, messy first draft, because then I feel like I’m in a warehouse full of ideas and words and thoughts and stories. Then I can just pick and choose.”
Her unique creative process produces that rarest of wonders in fiction: verisimilitude. In Three Pines, clues to the mystery are often dropped casually over café au lait at the bistro, and so subtly that we talk ourselves to sleep wondering whether to trust them, and if they’ll ultimately form a whole. Only a writer with Penny’s instincts could wait until an author’s note at the end of The Nature of the Beast to reveal a walloping fact that’s as shocking as the book’s climax (don’t peek; it’s worth the wait!).
While it’s not a spoiler to note that a serial killer haunts this latest installment, Penny admits she’s not about the body count, and never will be.
“I’ve been on a number of writer panels where people say, ‘Well, when it gets slow or boring, I just throw in another body!’ And I think, that can’t be right,” she says. “I’m not interested in body counts or serial killers; I’m really interested in the why. What would make a real-life human being do something like that? The murder is just a conceit to allow me to look at all sorts of other issues.”
Which explains why the village setting not only appeals to Penny, but may well have been inevitable.
“What always amazes me is, there is a tendency to dismiss crime novels set in a village or rural setting rather than in a city. As someone who lived in cities all my life, murders in Montreal are in the briefs column of the newspaper. It’s always tragic but it’s not horrific; it’s not a shock, it doesn’t set the whole community on edge,” she says. “But a murder in a tight-knit community? How big of a violation is that? Not only has a person’s life been taken, but your whole sense of security has been taken. And knowing that someone you know was murdered and someone you know did it? How horrific is that?”
Although Penny had a brief brush with cinema, serving as a consultant and executive producer on the 2013 film version of her first Gamache novel, Still Life, she’s an admittedly poor candidate to go Hollywood anytime soon.
“I don’t know about films. I was involved, but I’m not anymore, by my own choice. While they did consult me, they did not take a great deal of what I said; there was no onus on them to take anything to heart, and I found that very difficult,” she recalls.
Nor should readers expect any non-Gamache standalones. Penny readily admits she has found the perfect cast and setting to accomplish her primary goal as a mystery writer.
“I want the reader to care, and if you don’t care, why bother? I want the books and characters to follow the reader for days or weeks after,” she says.
“I want to try to bring down the fourth wall, to where they feel they’re actually sitting in the bistro listening to the conversation; they can smell the wood smoke and taste the café au lait and feel what the characters are feeling. I think if someone just reads my book with their head, they’re missing probably two-thirds of the book. You have to absorb it through your heart.”