|Place de l'Hotel de Ville - Freleighsburg, Quebec|
One of my oldest friends first told me about these books. He and his wife had both read them and he suggested I might enjoy them seeing as they are set in one of my favorite places - Québec’s Canton de l’Est [the Eastern Townships] which stretch from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at Montréal to the US-Canada frontier with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. I have been a regular visitor to this region for many years and so I followed my friend’s recommendation. I have not been disappointed.
I must make a confession. I read very little popular fiction, and have never demonstrated a proclivity toward murder mysteries. Yet Penny’s books are more than this as they are heavily character driven with a strong sense of place; in this instance the village of Three Pines, Québec, which apparently very few people in the Québec of Ms. Penny’s books have ever heard of. “Three Pines wasn’t on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road. Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in the valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once usually found their way back” [Still Life, 2005]. One is curious how a town nobody seems to know much about, or how to get there even if they did, manages to remain peaceful and serene while residents and visitors keep turning up dead. And, I should add, not by natural causes.
Three Pines is a fictional place; it does not exist. That said, however, Ms. Penny freely admits that she drew inspiration from several Eastern Township villages and towns she has come to know since moving to the region with her late husband after working as a broadcast journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Montréal. There are the bucolic towns of Sutton and Sutton Junction, where they first lived, and Knowlton, where Ms. Penny currently resides when she is not traveling the world. Farther afield are North Hatley, at the head of Lac Massawippi, and Georgeville, on Lac Memphrémagog. Then there is Stanbridge East, where the television production of Penny’s first novel, Still Life, was filmed. I have visited all of these locales and none of them have what I would call a village green, a key feature in Three Pines, and they all strike me as too large to be compared with the minuscule hamlet that is Three Pines. Its roads are unimproved and there are only a few cottages, a small church, a bistro and bed and breakfast, and a few shops arranged around a green with its three stately pines. A country inn was added in later books. That’s it. Strange that the bistro and B&B do such a brisk business in this modern day Brigadoon. More than a few have managed to find it.
Other than the murders, which are either referred to or described in the vaguest of terms, there is almost no violence found in any of the books. No sex either, although the language is occasionally coarse . . . sometime in French . . . and the f-bomb is dropped here and there. The inhabitants of Three Pines are just plain nice folks who are mostly kind and generous and look out for one another. “I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. It’s a place that has chosen its society wisely. It becomes self-selecting; there is a reason these people are there in this particular village,” Ms. Penny admits. “It’s known grief and sorrow and will again. Yet there’s something potentially redemptive here—because I believe in that. I think bad things do happen but it’s in an envelope of many blessings.” The stories are full of twists and turns and there are a lot of red herrings. They have been described by Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post as a “kinder and gentler” murder mystery. Others have compared them to the “cozy mysteries” of Agatha Christie, or to the plots of the popular television series Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, an amateur sleuth in Cabot Cove, Maine.
Critic and reviewers seem to think these types of stories appeal mainly to women, and in fact a great many fans of Ms. Penny’s mysteries are women. But there is no reason why they can’t appeal to men in equal measure. Chief Inspector Gamache is no amateur sleuth. Penny admits she created “someone who is kindly and strong, and has integrity and isn’t a bully, and has a sense of humor, and is literate without being pompous, and loves his food—someone not unlike my own husband, oddly enough!” Based in Montréal, Gamache is head of the homicide division of the Québec provincial police and he has jurisdiction for the entire province. Still, he manages to investigate the alleged tiny, isolated Three Pines murders personally supported by a phalanx of Sûreté officers and forensic specialists. Although Canada is officially bi-lingual, French is the only official language in Québec. At one time there were many well established English-speaking communities throughout the Eastern Township although they are fewer and farther between these days. Three Pines, however, has remained a village of anglophone Quebeckers. Thankfully, Inspector Gamache, who studied in England, is fluent in English which he speaks with a gentle Cambridge accent to the surviving village inhabitants, many who through the series become personal friends as he ingratiates himself with the community over time as he returns in each book to solve yet another murder.
This past autumn I took a road trip across Québec south of the St. Lawrence River and I used the opportunity to explore in more detail the various Eastern Township locales which have come to be associated with Ms. Penny’s books. More particularly, I set out to search for the mythical and mystical village of Three Pines where most of the action of these mysteries is set; if not the actual village, then those towns and places which provide Ms. Penny with her inspiration. Others have done this before me, and as far as I know, none have ever claimed to find a village with a central green, especially one featuring three tall pines and a river nearby and no cell service . . . certainly none of the ones Ms. Penny has suggested as a possible model for her fictional village. Listening to my friend who introduced me to these books describe Three Pines, a particular town, one of my favorites in the Townships, immediately came to mind – one that I picture when I reading the mysteries, even though it is not among the locales proffered as a model for Three Pines. I decided I would have a closer look.
After spending the night in Bécancour, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Trois Rivière, half way between Québec City and Montréal, I spent a pleasant morning driving through the rolling hills and farmland, past Drummondville and Granby and into the heartland of the Eastern Townships. I passed through Cowansville, where the closest Sûreté du Québec post to the fictional Three Pines is supposedly located, and from there I drove Route 2020 along the Route de Vin through vineyards in their rich autumnal colors until I arrived at my first stop - Stanbridge East, in the Stanbridge Township.
Ms. Penny describes Three Pines as a small hamlet situated on the fictional Bella Bella River just a few miles north of the US border. Its village green has three large white pine trees supposedly planted by the local inhabitants to let loyalists fleeing north during and following the American Revolution that they had reached safety in British Canada. Ms. Penny freely admits, however, that she first heard the three pine trees anecdote at church supper, and there is nothing to confirm this as historical fact. Add to this the simple fact that such trees would take too long to grow to be planted intentionally for this purpose as stated in the mysteries.
Stanbridge East, situated on the Rivière Aux Brochets and its mill pond, is just a few miles above the border and its diminutive size could easily fit the bill. The township was established in the year 1792 and opened for settlement, reversing the earlier policy prohibiting settlements near the American frontier. The only screen adaptation of any of the Three Pines mysteries - Still Life - was filmed here and released on CBC Television in 2013. Unfortunately many of the TV critics received it with less than favorable reviews when compared with the many character-driven BBC mysteries. One Canadian critic, however, confessed that it was “ easy on the eyes and the brains,” which of course, the novels are. They don’t pretend to be anything more. Such is the definition of a “cozy mystery.” I walked around and recalled many of the scenes from the film, but there is no village green to speak of . . . and no three pines or any larger stand of pines in any prominent town location.
My next stop was Frelighsburg Township and its eponymous village situated just a few miles southeast of Stanbridge East on Route 237 and less than three miles above the border with Vermont. The village has long been one of my favorite spots in the Eastern Townships which I visit as often as I can. This was my first visit since I began reading Ms. Penny’s novels. Even though it is not among the locales frequently cited as a possible model for Three Pines, I have always pictured Frelighsburg in my mind’s eye when envisioning the layout of and the action taking place in the fictional village.
Like its neighboring village of Standbridge East, Frelighsburg is also situated on the meandering Rivière Aux Brochets. It is not as isolated and “off the grid” as Three Pines (none of the locales mentioned are), yet it exudes the quiet and (relatively) peaceful charm of Ms. Penny’s fictional village, especially the bistro where the villagers and Inspector Gamache and his cohorts frequently meet to discuss the case at hand while enjoying a drink and a good meal near a glowing hearth. Frelighsburg happens to be the home of one of my favorite mealtime redoubt in the Townships . . . Aux 2 Clochers . . . located streamside in the very heart of the village. I made certain my road trip brought me to Frelighsburg come time for lunch. As I parked my car in front of the restaurant I looked across the road to Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and what did I spy there on the village green but three stately white pines!!. Now I realize that there is little if any truth in the anecdote about the symbolic three pines, but my jaw dropped. How could Frelighsburg not be Three Pines, if such a place ever existed? I enjoyed a delightful lunch staring out at the three pines and the gentle flowing river.
Leaving Frelighsburg I headed east following the road skirting the Canadian-US frontier to the border village of Abercorn and Route 139 which I them followed north through Sutton Station and Sutton where Ms. Penny lived when she and her late husband first moved to the Eastern Townships from Montréal. With a population approaching 4,000 it is far too large to be a true model for Three Pines although certain establishments in town have served as models for those in found in the novels.
Next on my list was Knowlton [Lac-Brome], yet another former loyalist village where Ms. Penny currently resides. It is also the home of Brome Lake Books. Situated on the banks of the town’s small pond (it has since moved to larger quarters on Knowlton Road, the town’s main thoroughfare), the bookstore has been made famous as the exemplar for the small bookstore in Three Pines, and it has become a mecca for Ms. Penny’s many devotees and fans. Of course I stopped.
From Knowlton I continued farther east, past the resort town of Magog, to North Hatley, at the northern head of Lac Massawippi. It is the home of Manoir Hovey which served as inspiration for a similar auberge in one of the mysteries. President and Hillary Clinton, who are both fans of the Three Pines mysteries, vacationed here shortly before my visit. North Hatley’s large homes and architecture styles evidence the original residents who were mostly wealthy industrialists and land owners from the American South who moved their summer retreats north of the border after the Civil War. The town is small and quaint much like Frelighsburg and it is another of my favorite destinations in the Townships, if for no other reason than the Pilsen Pub situated directly on (and over) Rivière Massawippi. I’ve been eating there for years, and I can also picture it when the bistro in Three Pines is described.
My last stop is Georgeville, on the eastern shore of Lac Memphrémagog where the Canadian actor Donald Sutherland still maintains a home. It, too, is very quaint, and faces across the lake to the Saint-Benoît-du-Lac abbey, and was established by American immigrants arriving after the Civil War. It is a beautiful spot, but like North Hatley, it bears little resemblance to the fictional Three Pines. Frelighsburg still remains my favorite choice.
I have always enjoyed reading books set in places I have visited and come to know beyond the cursory knowledge of a tourist. And I have that in spades with Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels. And even though these are technically murder mysteries, the bucolic and easy going demeanor of the Three Pines villagers give us, in these uncertain times we live in, a look at life the way it ought to be (without the murders, of course). The fact that all this takes place in Québec’s Eastern Townships . . . even better!