By Louise Penny
When I first heard about Louise Penny I was very surprised. She had been an unexceptional host on CBC radio in Winnipeg. As a regular CBC listener, I listened to her nearly every day. I heard she had moved to Quebec. Much to my surprise she wrote a book called Still Life. It was a murder mystery that took place in a small fictional village in the eastern townships called 3 Pines. I found it a little difficult to believe that she could be any good. How could a young woman from Winnipeg be a good mystery writer? That prejudice shows you how stupid I can be. Later I learned she was on the New York Times bestseller list. That did not seem improbable; it seemed impossible.
Sometimes it pays to listen to your spouse. Chris became a Penny fan and suggested I read her too. It took me a couple of years to follow her suggestions. Funny, how suggestions from a spouse are the last that are followed. And Chris says, “Should be the first to be followed. As a matter of fact, since Chris is a big mystery fan, when I learned this Winnipeg woman was an internationally respected mystery writer, I suggested she read her. Now Chris has conveniently forgotten my suggestion to her! Funny how that happens!
Eventually I read her first novel and concluded Penny is indeed a very good writer. Chris was right. Again I have to admit that. I have started to read her series now. Chris has read them all. This year I read the second in the series, Dead Cold. This convinced me that Penny is an exceptional writer.
One of the great pleasures of the series is Penny’s description of this small town in Quebec and it’s many fascinating inhabitants. This is how she describes the small town in her second novel:
“Three Pines had what she craved.
It had croissants and café au lait.It had steak fries and the New York Times. It had a bakery, a bistro, a B & B, a general store. It had peace and stillness and laughter. It had great joy and great sadness and the ability to accept both and be content. It had companionship and kindness.”
There was one outstanding incident in Dead Cold that I want to mention. It involved Clara, a recurring character in the series. Clara is an artist. So far she has toiled without success. She does not know if she is any good or not. Naturally she was insecure. She asked CC, who Clara wrongly thought was a friend, to introduce her art to a Montreal art critic. Then one day she encountered CC on an escalator in a Montreal department store, and CC, her erstwhile “friend” pretended to be talking to the critic as she was travelling down the escalator and Clara was travelling up. She led Clara to believe that the critic had dismissed her art as “amateur and banal.” It was cruel gesture and entirely deflated Clara. Clara was “murdered by words.” She “knew” her art was crap.
A few minutes after this painful incident, Clara encountered a homeless bum on the streets of Montreal. The bum was lying on the ground covered in vomit and excrement. The bum was an old woman. Clara intended to give her a bag of food. She almost stopped; the smell was so bad. Yet she continued and placed the bag beside the old woman. Amazingly, the old woman turned up to Clara and said, “I always loved your art, Clara.” How could that be?
For some reason, Clara was convinced this bum was God. The shit-covered bag lady was God! She thought she had met God. In my opinion Clara was wrong. She had not met God; she had become God. By offering food to the bum she became God. The Buddhists say that we must learn to become the Buddha. This is what Clara had done, and in the process she was redeemed. This is what we should do; we should become God. I believed that this is what genuine religion is all about. Religion leads us to the God within.
All of this in a mystery novel. Funny how that happens.