by Janet Gilmore
My pal Jane got me into novelist Louise Penny’s books over lunch one day. I read the first one and then binge-read the next 10. Then I re-read them. I’m a tad obsessive.
Penny’s detective is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Canadian Police. He has the allure of a happily married James Bond, and he solves every crime in every book. The books are set in the imaginary Canadian village of Three Pines.
I read on Facebook that Louise Penny’s 11th book is coming out on Aug. 26. My quest: to go to Canada, find her, buy a copy of her new book and ask her to sign it for me.
But where? Canada is a big country.
We had planned a vacation to Montreal. I knew Louise Penny lives in a “small village south of Montreal, near the Vermont border.” That narrows it down to about a zillion small villages. As I’ve said, Canada is big.
“Hugh, let’s drive from village to village near the Vermont border and ask if Louise Penny lives there; OK?”
“Don’t be daft, Queenie. Get back on the Internet.”
We can’t live without the Internet, of course, but we can’t hide much about ourselves, either.
Louise Penny and I are friends on Facebook. That is, she posts something every day; I ask her questions, and she ignores me. A lot of famous people ignore me. Almost all of them, actually.
Louise Penny posted that she recently helped the Bayton Books move to a new location! A bookshop features prominently in her books; I thought Bayton Books might be THE bookshop.
I phoned them. “Hi, does Louise Penny live in your town?” I asked subtly.
Is No the new Yes?
I made reservations at a B & B in the town of Knowlton, where the bookstore is located. I thought that at best, I might meet Louise Penny. At worst, we’d spend a few days in a charming town. I phoned the bookshop again the day before we left and tried a chattier approach.
“Hi, we’re book sellers from Philadelphia, driving up tomorrow, yadda, yadda, yadda. Does Louise Penny live there?”
“OKa-a-ay…” was the wary response. What did that mean? I still didn’t have a solid answer.
“Well, see you tomorrow!” I chirped.
On departure day, we shoved our stuff into the car and drove into the Land of Hope. False hope is better than no hope at all. And at least the weather would be better than summer in Philadelphia.
“Now don’t be shy about asking if Louise Penny lives here,” my husband Hugh advised when we arrived at our beautiful B & B. “Ask everyone. Tell them we drove 450 miles to meet Louise Penny. They’ll feel sorry for you and want to help.”
I asked the owners of the B & B. They said they didn’t know.
“Let’s go to the bookshop tomorrow morning,” I said.
The bookshop, which sells new books, was a perfect cat-on-the-window sill bookshop, and the only English-language bookshop for many miles. There was a shelf offering every Louise Penny title and another shelf of Inspector Gamache MERCHANDISE! This MUST be the place! The store was charming. The sun was shining. Customers browsed. Laura, the manager, was great. The owners were a married couple, very nice. They offered us coffee or tea. I petted the cat.
I was getting nowhere. Suddenly, somehow, the manager was asking if we’d like to meet Louise Penny’s assistant, who was right over there? Would we???!!!
Her name is Lise, but she is known all over town as “Assistant Lise.”
She was Louise Penny’s gardener, now her assistant. She does the bookkeeping and travels to do research for the books. She and Penny are friends. We talked for a long time.
“Is Louise’s new book out yet? I was hoping to buy a copy and ask her to sign it.”
“No, not out yet. The bookshop will get copies a week early; everyone else will have to wait until Aug. 26.”
“Is ‘Assistant’ a good job?”
“Great. Louise is very disciplined. She writes on an old typewriter every day until noon. She’s so lucky to have all those characters in her head all the time. She can visit them any time she wants. Her husband has dementia, and they spend almost all of Louise’s spare time together. That’s the way she wants it.”
“Well,” I asked Assistant Lise, “when you talk to Louise, could you please tell her three things from me?”
“First, I always read her books twice — once for the plot, and again more slowly to savor the writing. Second, her writing style is so simple that I always think nothing is going on until about page 10, when I realize I simply can’t put the book down. Third, I always read the end of mystery books first because I hate suspense, but not Louise’s books; they’re too good.”
Assistant Lise told me Penny’s books have been translated into 25 languages. I had that unpleasant feeling that I had been onto something special that only Jane and I knew about, but millions of people have known for years. In fact, probably everyone except me. I hate that.
I was not going to meet Louise Penny, but I left my e-mail address with Assistant Lise, just in case. And something wonderful happened.
Later in the afternoon, I got an e-mail from Louise Penny: “Dear Janet and Hugh,
“So sorry to have missed you when you visited Lucy at Bayton Books today! Assistant Lise just wrote to tell me how wonderful you are — and booksellers to boot. Saints, as far as anyone who loves books is concerned. I’m so glad you’ve discovered the Gamache books and had a chance to visit … Such a peaceful village. Have a great trip to Montreal and safe travels home. And hope, perhaps, our paths will actually cross before too long. All best, Louise”
So how about that? We left town happy.
One more thing: Not only is Louise Penny an internationally acclaimed writer, she is much loved in her town of Knowlton. There is, in fact, a conspiracy in town to protect her. All the hemming and hawing about where she lives is to keep tourists from knocking on her door and interrupting either her writing or her time with her husband.