A First-Timer's Take on the Brilliance of Louise Penny
In a world of increasing polarization and increasing immersion into a virtual existence, we could all use a bit more humanity.
Today, we have a lovely essay from Jeremy Anderberg, who only recently discovered the Inspector Gamache books. We hope you love his essay on falling for Louise Penny’s books as much as we did. Jeremy writes Read More Books, a fantastic book rec newsletter, and we’re so thankful he contributed to this project.
Blue Cat With Glasses painted the gorgeous image of our favorite inspector you’ll see below.
— Aya and Elizabeth
I. A Little Late
I arrived at the Louise Penny party a bit late — beyond fashionably late and into embarrassingly late territory. Though I’ve always enjoyed detective stories, it was grittier fare that traditionally attracted my attention: Lee Child, Caleb Carr, James Ellroy, Stieg Larsson, Tana French, even Stephen King (who basically writes mysteries with supernatural/paranormal elements thrown in).
As the years go by, however, I’ve come to much prefer a human-focused story rather than those driven mostly by plot.
So when my wife, Jane, suggested Louise Penny to me, I had a feeling it would be up my alley. If she enjoys something in the mystery or thriller genre, I know it’s not too intense and likely hones in on characters first and foremost instead of relying on shocking narrative twists.
But, I tucked away the recommendation, not acting on it immediately. I figured I’d save it for my next reading slump — which is often when I turn to the detective genre.
That slump found me while on vacation — the worst time to be in a slump! — in lovely Salida, Colorado over the 4th of July weekend this year. I was having a hard time finishing Middlemarch (hot take: it’s fine, but looong and dense) and couldn’t get into Wolf Hall (my second attempt at that book), which left me reeling. These were two classics! What was wrong with me?
Jane again implored me to give Penny a try. And this time I complied, downloading it to my Kindle that very moment.
For the next two days, it seemed my hand was glued to my Kindle — walking around my mom’s house with it, parenting my three kids with it, sitting with it at every chance I got. I couldn’t put it down.
When I finished Still Life, I nearly gasped at how relieved I was to have concluded the gripping story but also at how sad I was that it was done.
I couldn’t wait to get to the next Gamache story, but I also knew I didn’t want to get through them too quickly — it’s rare to find a reliable source of material for when you’re on a vacation or in a slump (that is, when you know you need just the right book).
Nonetheless, I’ve read eight books since then and have been so entirely enthralled by Louise Penny’s writing and stories that I included her among my all-time favorite authors.
What is it that makes Gamache and the village of Three Pines so special? Why was I so immediately drawn into this world?
II. It’s All About People
I’ve learned a handful of lessons during the last few pandemic years. Hand-washing really works, healthcare is as much about politics as anything else, new hobbies can be great outlets, and that the mundanities of life must always go on.
By far the biggest lesson, though, was the simple truth that life is all about people. It’s something that a lot of people would say they intuitively know, but the reality was driven home when we were all locked down and fearful of contact with others.
Despite their shortcomings, we all took up Zoom hangouts and more FaceTime than ever before, just to have some semblance of community.
As such, the books I’ve most enjoyed the last couple years have been deeply about people over plot. The Warmth of Other Suns, The Great Believers, Leave the World Behind, This Is How It Always Is, Four Thousand Weeks (which is about time management, with a focus on making time for what matters most).
It should be no surprise to you then, Reader, that Penny’s books struck a chord with me. (I especially love that sentence because I just finished A Beautiful Mystery!) While the plots of her books are uniformly fantastic, the story is never really about the murder itself but rather the person and emotion behind that desperate crime.
Penny makes this clear almost right away in Still Life:
“Crime was deeply human, Gamache knew. The cause and the effect. And the only way he knew to catch a criminal was to connect with the human beings involved.”
And in The Cruelest Month:
“He listened to people, took notes, gathered evidence, like all his colleagues. But he did one more thing. He gathered feelings. He collected emotions. Because murder was deeply human. It wasn’t about what people did. No, it was about how they felt, because that’s where it all started.”
Even Gamache’s famous rules for success as a detective can and should be adopted by everyone, regardless of their occupation:
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I need help. I was wrong.”
Without having read the books, it’d be easy to see these quotes and assume the characters were perhaps caricatures of good — people who do no wrong and never mess up.
But Penny proves her adeptness in that regard too. Though our main characters tend to move towards progress, it’s not perfectly linear — there are slip-ups along the way and even a couple big-time surprises (as in The Brutal Telling + Bury Your Dead). These are no flat caricatures, but well-rounded people full of depth, emotion, and all the varieties of human experience.
Armand Gamache is not just another literary detective. He’s a person. Jean Guy Beauvoir is not just another underling. He’s a guy at work you might be friends with — or not. Clara Morrow isn’t just a two-dimensional “townsperson,” she’s my neighbor. And in a world of increasing polarization and increasing immersion into a virtual existence, we could all use a bit more humanity.
III. The Perfect Series
When I was first approached with the idea of contributing to Notes from Three Pines, my initial impulse was to read the entire Gamache series over the summer and into fall. (I’m a recovering completist.) But as I got further into the books, I realized that I’d be doing a disservice to my reading life to blast through them in quick succession.
As I’ve alluded to above, there are certain times in your reading life when you need a known entity — the perfect book or series that you know you’ll enjoy and appreciate in that moment.
These situations can be different for different people, but for me it’s when I go on vacation (I want to guarantee my reading enjoyment while vacationing), over holiday breaks (revisiting characters or a style you know and love is guaranteed to induce a bit of warm and fuzzy nostalgia), and when I’m in rut of not being able to find a book I enjoy.
For me, Three Pines has become the place I go when I need a predictably delightful reading experience. It’s not that the narratives are fast-paced and always interesting (which they are!), but that I’m visiting with old friends I’ve come to know and love and root for.
With each new book in the series that I pick up, I’m 100% certain that I’ll savor every page. And that, Readers, is what makes the Gamache books the perfect series.
Jeremy Anderberg lives in the Denver area of Colorado with his wife and three young kids. During the day, you’ll find him working in marketing at Automattic. In the early mornings and late evenings, you’ll find him reading and writing for his book review newsletter, Read More Books, as well as his online book club, The Big Read.