Kingdom of the Blind
At this time of year, many Islanders head south in search of warmth and more than the occasional glimpse of sun.
For those still hunkered down here on the Rock, I offer a counterintuitive suggestion. To while away the winter day, take a trip north, to the fictional town of Three Pines in Canada. In the world created by novelist Louise Penny, Islanders like me will find themselves very much at home.
The residents of this small village, clustered around a green over which the three pine trees stand, know each other well — well enough to get on each other’s nerves at times. But when a crisis strikes, they gather in search of an answer while offering mutual support.
The central hero, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, is head of homicide in Quebec province. Gamache is a skilled investigator and intrepid lawman who is also gentle, compassionate and vulnerable. Starting with the first book in this series, “Still Life,” he’s called on to deal with a murder in, or connected to, Three Pines. The circumstances vary from a bow and arrow shooting to electrocution, and town residents have to be considered suspects at times.
The stories home in on the intimate details of life in the tiny community, but broaden to encompass political intrigue in the Canadian government, betrayals by comrades in the police force and other strands that the reader enjoys unraveling.
And while solving these mysteries, Gamache and many of the regulars gather in the bistro run by Gabri and Olivier. By a blazing fire in the hearth, they take comfort in a steaming bowl of beef bourguignon, with a baguette just out of the oven, and perhaps a red wine or brandy. Ms. Penny’s descriptions of the food and drink at these gatherings create a warm environment to which the reader gratefully surrenders. Then too, there are the inimitable characters, some of whom constantly nag each other as only loving friends can.
There is Ruth, the cranky poet, whose best friend, Rosa, is her pet duck. Rosa doesn’t quack, but makes a sound that rhymes with “duck,” echoing one of Ruth’s favorite words. While folks are sipping their red wine, Ruth can be found swilling scotch from a vase or the largest container available.
Myrna, the psychologist turned bookstore owner, is a calming influence, even when she sees the poet taking books from her store (or what Ruth calls the “library.”) The village is also peopled by artists and dysfunctional families who bring a variety of colors to each novel.
The series began with “Still Life” and continued through 12 more books. Faithful readers know that elements of Ms. Penny’s life are woven throughout the series. In her acknowledgments at the end of each book, she would refer to her husband, Michael, as her inspiration for Gamache, revealing in a later book that he was suffering from dementia.
After his death a few years ago, Ms. Penny stopped writing. She took a year off, she said, thinking she might never go back to writing of Gamache. Then slowly, she returned to her work, saying, “I missed my friends in Three Pines too much.”
For those of us waiting hungrily for that next book, the arrival in November of “Kingdom of the Blind” was a welcome feast. More than 400 pages of our “friends in Three Pines” continue the stories of these people we’ve come to know so well. As an added treat, the book includes a drawing of a map of Three Pines — thanks to Ms. Penny’s descriptive skills, it fits closely with my mental image.
Ms. Penny’s fans are legion; friends and families pass along each book in the series like a special gift. She turned up on Bill Clinton’s reading list. Hillary Clinton cited these novels among the comforts she found to salve the pain of her defeat in 2016 (acknowledging that chardonnay was also helpful in its own way.)
The clever construction of Ms. Penny’s novels brings a satisfying conclusion to the murder mystery at the heart of each novel, but always leaves a thread or two that can be picked up in a subsequent book.
While “Kingdom of the Blind” was a deeply refreshing quaff at the end of a long drought, fans are crossing their fingers, hoping to read more about Gamache, his family and friends in Three Pines in novels yet to come.