Analyzing the first three paragraphs of Louise Penny's Three Pines novels
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round. Miss Neal's was not a natural death, unless you're of the belief everything happens as it's supposed to. If so, for her seventy-six years Jane Neal had been walking toward this final moment when death met her in the brilliant maple woods on the verge of the village of Three Pines. She'd fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec knelt down; his knees cracking like the report of a hunter's rifle, his large, expressive hands hovering over the tiny circle of blood marring her fluffy cardigan, as though like a magician he could remove the wound and restore the woman. But he could not. That wasn't his gift. Fortunately for Gamache he had others. The scent of mothballs, his grandmother's perfume, met him halfway. Jane's gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him.
He was surprised to see her. That was his little secret. Not that he'd ever seen her before. No. His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him. Which was odd, for the head of homicide, and perhaps one of the reasons he hadn't progressed further in the cynical world of the Sûreté. Gamache always hoped maybe someone had gotten it wrong, and there was no dead body. But there was no mistaking the increasingly rigid Miss Neal. Straightening up with the help of Inspector Beauvoir, he buttoned his lined Burberry against the October chill and wondered.
By the end of the third paragraph, the reader knows why the book exists and what problem the book is going to solve.
Not the problem of who killed Jane Neal, of course (even though that will also be solved by the end of the story).
The problem of how to live with violence. How to live with cynicism. How to retain your own hard-earned goodness – your humanity, really – in a world that wants you to harden.
That's why Larry and I started reading these stories. That's why we're still reading them.
A Fatal Grace
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift. She might even have gone to her daughter's end of term pageant at Miss Edward's School for Girls, or 'girths' as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer. But the only end she knew was near belonged to a man named Saul. 'So, what do you think? Do you like it?' She balanced her book on her pallid stomach.
Saul looked at it, not for the first time. She'd dragged it out of her huge purse every five minutes for the past few days. In business meetings, dinners, taxi rides through the snowy streets of Montreal, CC'd suddenly bend down and emerge triumphant, holding her creation as though another virgin birth.
'I like the picture,' he said, knowing the insult. He'd taken the picture. He knew she was asking, pleading, for more and he knew he no longer cared to give it. And he wondered how much longer he could be around CC de Poitiers before he became her. Not physically, of course. At forty-eight she was a few years younger than him. She was slim and ropy and toned, her teeth impossibly white and her hair impossibly blonde. Touching her was like caressing a veneer of ice. There was a beauty to it, and a frailty he found attractive. But there was also danger. If she ever broke, if she shattered, she'd tear him to pieces.
Another famous Canadian author once said – and I'm going to misquote this, since Google is no longer a useful tool for verifying quotes (arguably, Google is no longer a useful tool for verifying anything) – that her first book was born, but her second book had to be built.
That's what Larry and I both suspected after reading A Fatal Grace.
The Cruelest Month
Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper. Wiping a strand of hair from her face, she smeared bits of grass, mud and some other brown stuff that might not be mud into her tangled hair. All around, villagers wandered with their baskets of brightly colored eggs, looking for the perfect hiding places. Ruth Zardo sat on the bench in the middle of the green tossing the eggs at random, though occasionally she'd haul off and peg someone in the back of the head or on the bottom. She had disconcertingly good aim for someone so old and so nuts, thought Clara.
"You going tonight?" Clara asked, trying to distract the old poet from taking aim at Monsieur Béliveau.
"Are you kidding? Live people are bad enough; why would I want to bring one back from the dead?"
The third book makes its purpose clear. Come spend time in Three Pines, it suggests, with the characters you are coming to love.
It also begins one of the arcs that anchors the series – the story of Clara Morrow, who is learning how to turn work into art.
A Rule Against Murder
In the height of summer the guests descended on the isolated lodge by the lake, summoned to the Manoir Belle-chasse by identical vellum invitations, addressed in the familiar spider scrawl as though written in cobwebs. Thrust through mail slots, the heavy paper had thudded to the floor of impressive homes in Vancouver and Toronto, and a small brick cottage in Three Pines.
The mailman had carried it in his bag through the tiny Quebec village, taking his time. Best not to exert yourself in this heat, he told himself, pausing to remove his hat and wipe his dripping head. Union rules. But the actual reason for his lethargy wasn’t the beating and brilliant sun, but something more private. He always lingered in Three Pines. He wandered slowly by the perennial beds of roses and lilies and thrusting bold foxglove. He helped kids spot frogs at the pond on the green. He sat on warm fieldstone walls and watched the old village go about its business. It added hours to his day and made him the last courier back to the terminal. He was mocked and kidded by his fellows for being so slow and he suspected that was the reason he’d never been promoted. For two decades or more he’d taken his time. Instead of hurrying, he strolled through Three Pines talking to people as they walked their dogs, often joining them for lemonade or thé glacé outside the bistro. Or café au lait in front of the roaring fire in winter.
Sometimes the villagers, knowing he was having lunch at the bistro, would come by and pick up their own mail. And chat for a moment. He brought news from other villages on his route, like a travelling minstrel in medieval times, with news of plague or war or flood, someplace else. But never here in this lovely and peaceful village. It always amused him to imagine that Three Pines, nestled among the mountains and surrounded by Canadian forest, was disconnected from the outside world. It certainly felt that way. It was a relief.
This is a beautiful opening, and it does in fact establish what the reader can expect – a book of backstory, past and present sliding and colliding in each of our characters' minds.
The installment held so much promise that I paused the series, after reading A Rule Against Murder, for nearly a year. At that point I had contracted with Shortwave Publishing to release Ode to Murder, and needed to deliver Like, Subscribe, and Murder and Shakespeare in the Park with Murder within the next nine months, give or take.
I needed to get my own words on the page before I got back to anyone else's.
The Brutal Telling
"All of them? Even the children?" The fireplace sputtered and crackled and swallowed his gasp. "Slaughtered?"
There was silence then. And in that hush lived all the things that could be worse than slaughter.
The fifth book in the Three Pines series both promises and yields a completely different reading experience than the first four. At this point – and I can't put it any other way – Louise Penny is asking readers to carry more, in their minds, as they read.
You can see, by the first three paragraphs, how much is being communicated – and how much is left uncommunicated. The reader is invited to participate, actively, in the storytelling.
This is the book that made me pass the previous installments over to Larry. "You have to read these," I said.
He has been, ever since.
Bury Your Dead
Up the stairs they raced, taking them two at a time, trying to be as quiet as possible. Gamache struggled to keep his breathing steady, as though he was sitting at home, as though he had not a care in the world.
"Sir?" came the young voice over Gamache's headphones.
"You must believe me, son. Nothing bad will happen to you."
You already know that I think Bury Your Dead is brilliant. If it were possible for me to write a book that contained, within its pages, as much history, poetry, philosophy, art –
As much truth, the only word I can appropriately use –
And to do it all in a way that makes the reader complicit, the information Gamache misses at the beginning of the story also missed by each and every one of us –
Because we are not used to pausing and considering as we read, even though that is precisely what this book demands, leaving words untranslated and poets uncited, an invitation to stop and think on every page –
And yet we keep reading, until the decision to turn corners (and pages) without thinking becomes tragic –
I am not sure whether this book made me cry because Gamache made a mistake, or because I made the same mistake, or because I knew the novel was the new standard for what I wanted to achieve as a writer.
Tomorrow we'll look at the first paragraphs of each of my Larkin Day mysteries, to see how they compare.