Louise Penny’s third appearance in Ann Arbor, this time to discuss and sign her latest Inspector Gamache mystery, will be at Washtenaw Community College’s Towsley Auditorium–the largest venue yet to host her here. Eight years ago, on her first visit to Aunt Agatha’s bookstore, “the store was pretty crowded,” says co-owner Robin Agnew. Two years ago, more than 300 people came to the store to meet her. “We borrowed space next door,” says Agnew, “and people still lined up out the door. In my twenty-one years of selling books I’ve never encountered the passion that people feel for Penny.”
There are reasons for this passion. Penny spins satisfyingly intricate whodunit plots that turn on believable events. She’s also a mistress of misdirection, leading us to believe we know who’s the culprit and then showing us we don’t–again and again, but her blind alleys are always plausible, never arbitrary or capricious. And when she finally unmasks her perpetrators, we admiringly acknowledge that she had, throughout, supplied all the clues needed to solve the mystery.
But perhaps it’s her characters and the setting of her novels that draw such ardent fans. The Long Way Home, her tenth Gamache mystery, is set in Three Pines, a fictional village in Quebec that is part Shangri-La, part Lake Wobegon; a fairy-tale village she’s made so alluring we’d all move there if we could. Penny has populated Three Pines–mostly–with people we’d love to have as neighbors; and it’s their thoughts, feelings, and emotions that Penny is most interested in exploring and sharing. Of course, there is also evil here–these are, after all, murder mysteries–which is where Armand Gamache comes in.
Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Surete du Quebec, Gamache is possibly the most humane, compassionate, yet determined detective working in the genre. In The Long Way Home, Gamache, now retired, has moved to Three Pines, but his detecting skills are still needed, this time by a fellow villager who’s been central to the series since the beginning. Clara Morrow’s husband, Peter, has disappeared. Gamache can’t refuse to help and, along with his longtime second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, sets off on a dangerous search inspired in part, as Penny acknowledges, by both Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and The Odyssey. But while Gamache’s journey takes him all over Quebec and Canada, we still get to spend time in the village with lovable Three Piners like Olivier and Gabri, the gay couple who run the Bistro; Myrna, the smart, feisty, black bookstore owner and former psychologist; and Ruth, the elderly poet whose conversations with her pet duck consist of the f-word in triplicate, but who also contributes deep, poetic insights.
Both new Penny fans and those who have been regularly travelling to Three Pines with her for the past ten years will be delighted to make the journey north of the border again. Bon voyage.
Penny is at WCC on August 28.