In Quebec, Canada’s Eastern Townships, fans of mystery writer Louise Penny step into the world of Three Pines and Inspector Armand Gamache.
It’s a sunny day on the village green in Knowlton, Quebec, a.k.a. “Three Pines.” It’s the real-life place that inspired the fictional town where Louise Penny sets her bestselling mystery novels. They’re serving steaming coffee and camaraderie at the bistro. You’ll find a cheery welcome and plenty of reading tips at the bookstore. A fiddler plays while shoppers stroll the nearby farmers market. Seriously, here in the Eastern Townships of Quebec life seems so idyllic you can’t believe it.
Except for all those murders.…
Sixteen Murders and Counting
Welcome to the world of bestselling author Louise Penny —one of the biggest names in crime fiction. Set amidst the rolling countryside and lakes of the Eastern Townships (about 60 miles from Montreal and just north of the Vermont border) Penny fills her books with the history and charm of Quebec. That makes a terrific contrast with murders—strictly fictional!—that have included a woman killed by a hunting arrow, a prior conked in the head with an iron door knocker, a woman crushed by a falling statue and one person who is simply frightened to death. The list goes on.
Yet, as Penny told USA Today, the books are “about goodness, as well.” Penny said in a CBS Sunday Morning interview that the books are about many things, least of all murder. They’re about life, choices, love and friendship, and food. That’s one of the keys to their popularity. The first book in the series, Still Life, came out in 2005. Since then Penny has released a new book about every year and holds the first event promoting each book here in Knowlton where she lives. All the Devils Are Here, the 16th novel in the series comes out in 2020.
The books offer the thrills and sleuthing of crime novels without the violence and raunchiness of many murder mysteries. They’re often described as character-driven mysteries and central among those characters is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache has become known as the the “Hercule Poirot of Canada.” Penny was influenced by Agatha Christie and Georges Simmenon’s Maigret. Like Poirot and Maigret, Gamache is a man of principle and ethics. As a result he’s often beleaguered and at odds with his superiors at the Surete. The eccentric residents of Three Pines play an equally important role. Readers get to know them as they change and develop over the course of the series. The setting that Penny paints in the books also serves as an important and appealing character, too.
The Eastern Townships, les Cantons de L’Est, are located in southeastern Quebec, on the edge of the American border. During the Revolutionary War, the area offered refuge to the British royalists fleeing from the revolution. While the rest of Quebec is thoroughly French, the Eastern Townships bear the marks of British culture including villages with names such as Sutton, Sherbrooke and Georgeville. The fictitious town name of Three Pines is nod to the fact that royalists often planted a cluster three pine trees as a signpost of safety for British royalists fleeing across the border.
British as the towns were, they’re still in the midst of culturally French Quebec and people here switch back and forth between English and French as easily and most of us flip a light switch on and off. They also offer the fabulous food, wine, shops and joie de vivre of the region’s French Canadian heritage which Penny weaves into her stories. Characters are constantly eating meals that make my mouth water, enjoying a glass or two of wine or taking in the peace of their surroundings. It’s no wonder that people from around the world visit the area every year to see the landscape and cultural life they’ve read about in Louis Penny’s books.
The region is also famous its outdoor activities including biking, hiking and skiing. With so much to do, see and taste, the territories make a fabulous place for book clubs and Louise Penny fans to visit, well beyond their interest in the books.
A Gamach-Inspired Tour
We toured the rolling hills, green woods and sunny little towns of Gamache’s world with Danielle Viau of Three Pines Tours to see “where the bodies are buried,” so to speak.
While revealing the places that have inspired Louise Penny’s mysteries, Dani explained the area’s culture and history. We sampled the food and drink and met a few the folks that live in the Eastern Townships who make the destination so engaging—all quite a contrast to the deadly deeds that take place in the stories.
We started in the historic town of Knowlton, aka Three Pines. Readers will want to head to Brome Lake Books, a cozy store with nooks that invite readers to settle in and explore new titles. Penny’s readers will find it reminiscent of Myrna’s new and used bookstore in the novels.
Also in Knowlton, The Brome County Historical Society Museum is a surprising gem, especially for its size. It features an exhibit about the thousands of orphaned British Home Children who who passed through it in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. And, it houses a WWI Fokker airplane believed to be one of only three planes of that type in the world with its original fabric. But, don’t miss the painting “Fair Day”used in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s movie, Still Life, based on Penny’s book of that name.
Later, we lunched on duck and a local favorite, maple sugar pie with caramel sauce, at Le Relais Bistro at Auberge Knowlton. Built in 1849 the bistro features cushy chairs, large wooden dining tables and cozy rooms for overnight stays upstairs, all reminiscent of the Bistro in A Brutal Telling.
Then we headed to the Abbey of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, home to Benedictine monks on the shore of Lake Memphrémagog featured in A Beautiful Mystery. Visitors can attend services, listen to the monks’ Gregorian chant and also purchase the products the monks make including cheese (named after saints), chocolate and other goodies.
Another day, we visited the tres charmant village, North Hatley, located on Lake Massawippi. Here, you’ll find the elegant Manor Bellechasse, which makes an appearances in Louise Penny’s The Murder Stone. We strolled the waterfront, hit a few shops and stocked up on goodies at the village farmers market. (Click on the photos above to see them in a larger format.) It doesn’t get more charming.
You’ll be glad Louise Penny lured you here.
If You Go
We stayed in another great Eastern Townships village, Sutton, where we ate and drank at the Auberge Sutton Brouerie and slept at Bite Vert le Mont Bed & Breakfast where owner Lynda Graham shared her stories and fabulous cooking.
If You Can’t Go Right Now
Can’t make it to the Eastern Townships any time soon? Read Louise Penny’s books and enjoy her comments about them as go. Armchair travel at it’s best!