LOUISE PENNY Tells All

Written by Louise Penny

Louise Penny

THE MURDER STONE was a risk.  I knew that going in, but I also knew it was necessary.  It’s the fourth book in the Gamache series, and the last of the seasonal cycle.  Each of the first four has been set in a different season, beginning with STILL LIFE in the autumn.  I wanted a reader to experience a full year in Quebec.  To feel the seasons pass. To taste the seasonal food, and watch the characters as they adjusted to the weather. 

Like most mysteries, mine are about duality.  The public face and the inner thoughts, so often at odds.  About what we say and what we mean.  About believing we know what someone is thinking and feeling.         

And making that terrible mistake.

Seasons in Quebec, I know, have their own duality.  Each is exquisite.  Sometimes filled with such beauty I feel weak at the knees.  And at other times, often within moments, the weather will turn on you, kill you.

Black ice on a clear winter’s day.  A forest fire racing through the stunning autumn woods.  Snow melting and clogging rivers, sweeping cars off roads and burying houses under spring mud. 

The seasons are allegories and characters themselves, as is the setting.

Each of the first three books is set in the village of Three Pines.  It was and is my perfect fictional village. Intentionally idyllic.  There is a quality of magical realism about Three Pines.  It is described as not being on any official maps.  A village time brushes against as it rushes somewhere else.  A place only ever found by people lost. 

I love Three Pines.  I created it because I would want to live there.  It has a used bookstore, a bakery, a bistro with antiques and roaring fires, café au laits and steak frites.  It has a general store.  People read.  Books and The Times

They struggle with their own lives, and maintain at times prickly friendships.  Like with Ruth, the demented poet whose latest slim volume is called I’m F.I.N.E.   It becomes clear, eventually, that FINE stands for ‘Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical.’  Ruth is indeed FINE. 

The first three books also form a sort of trilogy.  While each murder is self-standing there is another story that arcs over the first three and has to do with Gamache and internal Sûreté du Québec politics. This story is resolved by THE CRUELLEST MONTH, the third book.

My biggest fear with this series was, and still is, falling into a rut.  Essentially writing the same book over and over.  I’m also one of the most competitive people I know.  Not against others, but with myself.  I wanted each book to be better than the last.  And different.  And I wanted to get better and better as a writer.

I knew that meant taking risks.

Frankly, between us?  All I ever really wanted from myself was to write one book.  I had NO idea anyone would want or expect more.  After completing STILL LIFE and finding the magnificent Teresa Chris as my agent, I relaxed and figured my deal with myself was completed.  I could go back into the garden and try to control that Bishop’s Weed.  Then Teresa called.


‘I’ve sold the book to Headline.’

‘Yippee!’

‘In fact, I’ve sold three books.’

‘Yippee!  Mine and who else’s?’

‘Just yours.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Three books, all from you.’

‘Yippee,’ I said, a little lower.

‘Yes.  And more good news.  They want one a year.  Yippee!’

Pause.

‘Louise?  You okay?’

‘I’m FINE.’           

You have no idea how terrifying it is to have taken forty-five years to write the first book then be given twelve months to write the next.  And one after that.

Clearly, I wrote the books.  I’d already spent the advance and was loathe to give it back.  Besides, Teresa terrified me. 

So the next two books were written, fueled by pastries, gummi bears and prayers.  No matter what anyone tells you, there are no atheists facing laptops and deadlines. 

But, by Book 4, THE MURDER STONE, most of my terror had disappeared.  Replaced, I think, by a healthy certainty that the book I was writing was crap.  Then that it was brilliant.  Then it was crap.  Then brilliant.  As you can see, I’m still FINE.

I decided with THE MURDER STONE to take a risk.  But a necessary one, for the series and for me as a writer. For my creativity and for the longevity of the series.  A series I adore. 

Three Pines needed a break.  Among other things it needed to repopulate.  And I needed to step back and prove to myself that I could write books just as engaging set somewhere else.

The other question on my mind was whether Three Pines was the big draw, or Armand Gamache.  Would people follow the Chief Inspector?  Or would they long for the village?

I suspected by then, given the mail I was receiving, that while people loved Three Pines as much as I do, they would be happy to explore another part of Quebec with Gamache.

So I created the Manoir Bellechasse.  It’s an old hunting lodge on the shores of an isolated Quebec lake that’s been turned into an über-luxurious Inn.  Gamache and his beloved wife, Reine-Marie, have gone there every year for thirty years, to celebrate their anniversary.  And this summer is no different, except the rest of the Inn, indeed all the best rooms, are taken up by one family.  On a reunion. 

 One they’ll never forget.

THE MURDER STONE is as much a ‘how-done-it’ as a ‘whodunit’.  And I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to create new characters – the Finney family, the employees at the Inn.  To explore more deeply Gamache’s past, and the dark secret there.  To explore relationships between fathers and sons.

My books are never about murder, or about blood.  They’re about what happens in the marrow.  The things we hide, even from ourselves.

THE MURDER STONE is also about nature, human and otherwise.  And what a wilderness really is. 

But more than anything, THE MURDER STONE, like all the Gamache novels, is about love and friendship. About belonging and hope.  And finding kindness buried.  In the wilderness.  In the marrow.

This book is also a deliberate homage to the Golden Age mystery writers, the men and women who’ve inspired me.  Who kept me company when times were darkest.  The only writers my mother and I had in common and whose books acted as a bridge when our relationship had no other meeting ground.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, Georges Simenon, Josephine Tey.  Writers it might not be fashionable to honour today, but to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, not least of all for inspiring my own approach. 

But my books could not be second-rate Christies, or warmed-over Innes’.  They needed to stand on their own, and belong to their own time.

And so I wrote THE MURDER STONE, as a thank you.  A neo-classical mystery set in a remote country house. A deliberate nod to the Golden Age, without being imprisoned.  Informed, yes, but not held captive.

I wanted to see if I could do what they did so brilliantly – the hermetic murder.  The finite suspects.

Clearly, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I succeeded.  All I know is that it was a joy to write.  Some difficult times, some times I just wanted to chuck it all, kill my agent, and relax in prison.

But not a day went by that I wasn’t aware of how lucky I was.  To write what I would choose to read.  Even if I’m the only one.

As it turns out the book has gone into multiple printings internationally.  It made the New York Times bestseller list and has earned glowing reviews.  And I hardly had to sleep with any critics.  A few booksellers, yes.  And the maitre d’ at the OXO restaurant.  And that bus driver who said his brother was a film producer.  But I think that’s about it.  Do librarians count?

Oh, dear. 


Louise Penny



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