April 2, 2017
You can find any number of more profound or better-written books; you can probably find many works that are considered better examples of the genre; and you can probably find books that will resonate with you in more personal ways—but I think it might be difficult to find a book whose characters better embody a commitment to living with grace, affinity, good humor, and vulnerability than those in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries.
That is why, for three years now, I have found myself drawn to the village of Three Pines, outside of Montreal, where there always seems to be a murder despite the minuscule population of a town that, as the story makes clear, doesn’t even appear on official maps. The murders drive the plot, and their explanations are interesting in their own right, but these books are about something broader and deeper. They are about the places where ethics and real life meet. And tangle. And weave. Without aspiring to the mantel of literature, these stories animate a no-nonsense philosophical approach to life. They are the most practical, unpretentious contemplation of the human condition I have encountered in fiction.
To be more specific, the people who live in and visit Three Pines illuminate the struggle to live a good life, the bumbling conduct that follows an imperfect moral compass, and the effort to honor one’s own desires while adding to—not subtracting from—the lives of those they love and those they merely accept and those with whom they exist in community. The characters are flawed, but they laugh at each other’s flaws and their own. They take and they give, they resent and they forgive. Penny, more than anyone else I read regularly, touches me with her depictions of our humbling struggle, a struggle so mundane because of its ubiquity but so crucial because it means everything to each one of us.
There is also, of course, the comforting presence of Inspector Gamache bordering every scene, reflected in or resisted by every other character. He is all that a leader should be. He is Dumbledore, Gandalf, and Atticus Finch. He is as compassionate as he is indomitable. He is as patient as he is intelligent. He is as whimsical as he is principled. The fact that he balances all of these attributes makes him wise. He does not forget, and he does not lose hope. He trusts his instincts, and he admits his mistakes. It might be sappy to say that I consciously aspire to be like Armand Gamache, but it is true. And I aspire to write like Louise Penny.
I just finished the 7th book in this series, A Trick of the Light. It’s an excellent mystery, like the six novels that come before it, but it is also an inspiring blueprint for how to treat others, how to find and trust your creative spark, how to apply your intellect to a problem, how to honor your emotions, and how to work as a team with your partner or with your colleagues. Louise Penny imbues every scene with the insights of a life obviously spent paying attention to what enriches experience and what detracts from it. The 7th book is no exception, and it has the usual sprinkling of art, poetry, food, drink, suffering, joy, questions, answers, honesty, lies. I guess it’s a formula, but it’s such a genuine, real-feeling formula that I always come away feeling fulfilled and richer for it.