A NOTE FROM LOUISE PENNY:
Welcome to the first meeting of the Three Pines Book Club—gathering in this virtual location of Myrna’s New and Used Bookshop.
Our first book to re-read is Still Life. I suspect most of you have already read it, but I also think some of you might be new to the series.
The novels are set, for the most part, in the fictional Quebec village of Three Pines.
I created the village as a place of refuge. A place I would choose to live. That was beautiful, and peaceful. That offered company, companionship—as well as croissants and rich café au lait. And licorice pipes.
I was much taken, years ago, when reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Orlando, the main character, had lived many lifetimes in many guises. Now, I’m paraphrasing the opening of that book, but Woolf wrote something to the effect that over the years, in each of those lifetimes, Orlando was looking for only one thing. It wasn’t riches. It wasn’t power. It wasn’t even love.
What Orlando yearned for was company.
I’d been through periods in my life when I thought I would die from loneliness. And so the idea of belonging, of company, of home, was powerful.
The world, when I started writing Still Life, was suddenly a pretty scary place. 9/11 had happened the year before and more attacks seemed imminent and would almost certainly be completely unexpected. Suddenly places and activities that had seemed benign, safe, fun, were riddled with insecurity.
I wanted to pull the sheets up over my head, stay in bed, and read.
But, like you, I couldn’t. But what I could do was create that safe place.
Oddly, perhaps, I also chose to violate it—by bringing murder into the pretty little village, and into the lives of Clara, Peter, Ruth et al.
But it also brought Chief Inspector Gamache. The decent man, who made a living investigating the indecent act of homicide.
Just as I created a community I would live in in Three Pines, and villagers I would choose as friends in Clara and Myrna and Gabri etc—I also intentionally created, in Armand, a man I would marry. Because, in many ways, I knew if Still Life spawned a series it would become like a marriage. And he needed to have the qualities I admire in a man. In anyone. The qualities I strive for, and so often fall short of, myself.
But peace untested might prove an illusion. And so Three Pines is tested when Miss Jane Neal is murdered.
And goodness might be shallow, situational. And so Gamache is given Agent Nichol to test him and, more insidious, the Arnot case. To see if he really is a decent man, or just pretending to be when things are going his way. The first reference to Arnot is in Still Life—it clearly refers to something horrific, but unexplained, in Gamache’s past. And in the recent history of the Sûreté du Quebec.
This was intentional. It was important that it be clear that all these characters have pasts, and we are coming in mid-life, mid-leap. But, as with new friends, all will eventually be revealed.
Here now, in Still Life, we are introduced to Gabri and Olivier, to Ruth, the demented old poet. To Clara, who creates art from her heart, and Peter, the more successful artist in their marriage. To Ben, who never strays far from home, and Myrna, who found a home in Three Pines. And all the other villagers whose lives mix and join together. From here their stories move forward, but we also see further and further back. To what made them who they are.
These books are murder mysteries, but they’re not about murder. They’re about love and belonging, about loyalty and choices. And the courage to be good.
I recently heard Louise Penny interviewed by her publisher, and, knowing Louise now, it came as a surprise to hear her say she identified with Agent Yvette Nichol. However, here’s the final paragraph in the Acknowledgements in Still Life. “I went through a period in my life when I had no friends, when the phone never rang, when I thought I would die from loneliness. I know that the real blessing here isn’t that I have a book published, but that I have so many people to thank.” I never knew that lonely Louise. She herself is an example of the duality she writes about. I see her much more as Clara Morrow, and, she has said that as well. (Doesn’t an author put herself into many characters?) Clara is a kind woman, who really wants to belong. I only know that Louise Penny, the warm, kind woman who reaches out to others.
I first read Still Life in 2006, and met Louise in 2008 at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. I saw a woman who reached out to every member of the small audience. I’ve repeated this story often. There was one teen in the audience, dragged there by her mother. She had headphones on. Louise started by asking her age, and when she was told thirteen, she asked if she’d read Rick Riordan’s mythological series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. That teen was at every subsequent appearance I attended at The Poisoned Pen.
I know the Louise Penny who loves gummi bears. (Did you catch those references in Still Life?) I know the friend who always found time to squeeze in a short visit when she was in town, and I found how she listened with her heart. I know the Louise Penny who wrote me after my husband died. “I am devastated for you, as is Michael. . . . Oh, Lesa . . . our hearts break for you. How are you? Would you like to come up? Spend quiet time away and we could look after you? . . . When you feel like it please write and tell us how you are. Michael sends his love and grief, as do I. Actually, we don’t send our grief—you probably have way too much of that already. We send light. And peace.”
I know the Louise Penny of light and peace.
I know the Louise Penny who created Three Pines. She may have needed it as a refuge at one time. Fortunately for all of us, she created a place that can only be found by people who are lost. Three Pines has sheltered many lost souls.
So, welcome to Three Pines and Still Life.
Before we meet anyone else, readers meet the victim, Jane Neal, and the investigator, Armand Gamache. We learn a little about each in just a couple paragraphs. Jane was unmarried, seventy-six, and her death was not natural. She was kind and gentle. Gamache is in his mid-fifties, “at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career”, and, even though he was head of homicide, he was always surprised by violent death, hoping it was wrong.
Still Life is more than a murder mystery. Penny has said her books are not really about murder, but what murder dislodges in a community. And, the first half of this book introduces the community. We meet Clara Morrow and her husband Peter. They are both artists, but Peter is a success, while Clara is unknown in the art world. We learn that beyond marijuana, Three Pines had no crime. “No break-ins, no vandalism, no assaults. There weren’t even any police in Three Pines.” So, Jane’s report of an unspeakable action perpetrated by some boys came as a shock. She recognized the boys under their masks, and called out their names.
The Friday before Thanksgiving, we meet a small group of friends at a dinner at the Morrow home. Ruth Zardo is swigging Scotch. Olivier Brulé and Gabri Dubeau are the two gay men who own the Bistro, victims of the hate crime witnessed by Jane Neal. Myrna Landers, “huge, effusive, and unexpected”, is the owner of the bookstore, Ben Hadley is Peter’s best friend. Jane is celebrating the acceptance of her picture, Fair Day, for the local exhibition. When she tells them the picture was painted at the closing parade of the county fair, they all remember it was the day Peter and Clara had to tell Ben his mother, Timmer, had died while he was in Ottawa. Despite that sad recollection, Jane invites them to have drinks at her house after the opening of the exhibition.
It’s into this village that Armand Gamache brings his team. Yvette Nichol is a young agent, on her first case, desperate to make a good impression. Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir has been Gamache’s second-in-command for more than a decade, a man who hears Gamache’s command, “Tell me what you know”, as the beginning of the hunt. Isabelle Lacoste is the agent who, walking to the site where Jane Neal died, promises her Chief Inspector Gamache would find out who killed her.
These two groups of people are brought together under the watchful eye of Armand Gamache. It’s important to know all of these characters, people who continue to show up in the series. It’s most important to see Gamache, and recognize his style of investigation.. “I watch. I’m very good at observing. Noticing things. And listening. Actively listening to what people are saying, their choice of words, their tone. What they aren’t saying.”
It doesn’t take the team long to discover that Jane Neal was killed, shot by an arrow. In a meeting of the villagers, Peter, Ben, and Matthew Croft reveal how many of them are familiar with bows and arrows, how many of them hunt, and that Jane Neal was known to confront those who were doing wrong, from Croft, who was caught hunting illegally, to the three boys who attacked Gabri and Olivier. But, Jane Neal’s death still bothers Gamache. “And that’s the puzzle, thought Gamache. Why? Why an arrow and not a bullet?…An old-fashioned wooden arrow with real feathers used to kill an elderly retired schoolteacher. Why?”
The investigation immediately swings toward looking for someone who shot that arrow, even while Gamache is interested in other aspects of Jane Neal’s life. Who inherits her estate? Naturally, the heirs are always suspect. And, Jane’s niece, Yolande, is an angry, hard woman. Who else might have reasons to wish her dead? Her painting, Fair Day, had just been accepted for Arts Williamsburg, because it was brilliant. Were other artists jealous? Clara pointed out that only a small group of friends knew the painting had been accepted, and they were all close enough for Jane to invite them to her house. So, who had the bows and arrows, the ability to kill Jane Neal?
The investigation leads to the Croft family. Matthew Croft, who hunted illegally, was once caught by Jane Neal. The police find Matthew’s wife, Suzanne, trying to hide something from them in the basement. And, then, there’s fourteen-year-old Philippe, one of the boys Jane caught attacking Olivier and Gabri. While the police wait for the results of lab tests, suspecting they found the home of the killer, Gamache decides to try out other theories. He doesn’t like to close a case too early. “Just to be on the safe side.”
As Gamache waits, he learns more about the villagers. Ruth Zardo is one of Canada’s most famous poets. And, Clara and the villagers have a different view of the deceased Timmer Hadley than Myrna did. They’ve known Timmer longer, as Ben’s mother, a hateful woman who terrorized her son.
And, as the villagers wait, they once again gather at Clara and Peter’s where they deconstruct the crime, and realizing one of them is a killer, they know someone killed Jane Neal on purpose. Readers who want to continue the series should watch the scenes in which the villagers gather because there are glimpses of their true characters in these moments.
When the lab results come in, the team once again visit the Crofts, where Philippe turns on his father, but Matthew Croft’s confession isn’t enough to convince Gamache of his guilt, and he refuses to arrest him, going against orders. Gamache is suspended, and Beauvoir is forced to take his gun and badge from him.
It’s while attending Jane Neal’s memorial service and reception that Gamache realizes one of his officers lied to him, and didn’t check on Jane Neal’s will. And, when the women of the village hold a prayer ritual, they discover another piece of evidence, an arrow that was still in a tree. That piece of evidence exonerates Matthew Croft, proves Jane Neal really was murdered, and it wasn’t an accident, and brings about the reinstatement of Gamache as officer in charge of the investigation.
And, it was the will, leaving everything to Clara, that opens Jane Neal’s house to the police. They find horrific wallpaper and paint in the house, but, when they look beneath it, they discover Jane Neal’s gift to the community. Her paintings on her walls reveal the history of Three Pines. And, Gamache knows that the murderer was someone on those walls as well.
But, it’s Clara, the artist, who is the first to realize who the killer is. And, her attempt to confront the killer leads to a horrifying scene, and a rescue attempt during a hurricane. The discovery of the murderer would change the villagers forever.
Louise Penny, a master storyteller, foreshadows so many of the relationships and actions in future books when she talks about her characters. Remember the characters, their reactions, their feelings, as you read future books. And, remember Three Pines. “And the pall of grief that settled on this little community was worn with dignity and sadness and a certain familiarity. This village was old, and you don’t get to be old without knowing grief. And loss.”
But, also remember Armand Gamache’s last view of Three Pines. “He looked down at the village and his heart soared. He looked over the rooftops and imagined the good, kind, flawed people inside struggling with their lives….Life was far from harried here. But neither was it still.”
Ruth Zardo quotes poet W.H. Auden. “Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.”
Matthew 10:36. “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
As we read the other books in this series, it’s important to remember what we’ve learned about the characters. Keep in mind what you’ve learned about Gamache, Beauvoir, and Nichol, as well as about the villagers themselves; Clara, Peter, Olivier, Gabri, Ruth and Myrna. And, remember what Louise Penny said. Her books are not really about murder, but what murder dislodges in a community.
In a 2007 interview with author G.M. Malliet, Louise Penny said, “I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. A village occupied by people who have made conscious choices in their lives. Not because they’ve never been hurt, not because they’re too protected, or foolish, or shallow to know that the world can be a dreadful place. No. It’s for that very reason they’ve all made their choices. They’ve all been hurt. As have we all. But when wounded some people become embittered, cynical, sarcastic. They hurt back. But some, and I sometimes think they’re the ones most wounded, make another choice. They know nothing good comes of giving in to our darker instincts. And so they turn to what Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address called, ‘The better angels of our nature.’ Three Pines is a place where kindness trumps cruelty, where people help each other, and care. Where sharing isn’t a word to be laughed at and even an embittered old poet is welcomed.”
- Louise Penny has said she modeled Armand Gamache on her husband. How do you picture Gamache?
- Other than Armand Gamache, who is your favorite character in the first half of the book? Why?
- People in this book have secrets, even Gamache. What secrets surprised you?
- What is your reaction to Agent Nichol’s behavior?
- Is it a flaw in Gamache that he has a desire to help people, and that he’s too compassionate?
- Ben Hadley tells Gamache the story of the three pines. Do you think the trees and village still serve a similar purpose for those who seek refuge?
- What happened to the Three Pines community as a result of Jane Neal’s death?
- Gamache has a fear of heights, and shows unexpected anger. He also refuses a direct order. Do these flaws make him more human, or indicate weakness?
- What did Clara mean by having “Surprised by Joy” engraved on Jane Neal’s tombstone?
- Louise Penny says this book is about choice. What did she mean by that?
- Three Pines is Louise Penny’s ideal village. What is your ideal village like?
- Penny uses poetry throughout the book. Is there one poem or line that resonates with you?