A murder by any other name

By MJ Deschamps

Photo: Jean-François Bérubé

An Ontarian by birth but a Quebecer by choice, English-Canadian author Louise Penny cannot imagine calling anywhere else home than Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

Penny, the author behind the successful Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series (set primarily in the fictional Quebec village of Three Pines) has drawn on her own experience as an Anglophone living in a primarily Francophone community to paint a backdrop for the majority of her works. Naturally, then, the theme of linguistic and cultural duality is an important sub-text for Penny’s novels, which have won major crime novel awards and ended up on international bestseller lists, including the New York Times’.

“I found it fascinating just being an Anglophone in Quebec, so I wanted to write about it,” says Penny, speaking from her home in Sutton, a small town in the Eastern Townships. She describes her books as “love letters to Quebec,” based on her sense of belonging in the province. “I spent much of my life looking for a place to belong; a home. And it really astonished me that as a unilingual Anglophone, I should find it in rural Quebec,” says Penny. “There really is a sense of belonging that transcends language and culture that is very precious to me, and I wanted to reflect that in the books.”

In the background of Penny's murder-mystery stories, we find another important story thread: Canadian culture and the co-existence of the French and English languages. According to Penny, the books could indeed be regarded as a conscious (but determinedly non-political) commentary on Canada’s linguistic and cultural duality.

Although Penny writes in English, her books are chock full of French. Words and phrases such as “vernissage,” “terrasse” and “café au lait” pop up everywhere in her text: words common enough for the majority of English-speaking readers to need no explanation, even unilinguals.

One book in the series, Bury Your Dead, is set in Québec City. “The next morning, Saturday, Gamache took Henri and walked through gently falling snow up rue Ste-Ursule for breakfast at Le Petit Coin Latin. Waiting for his omelette, a bowl of café au lait in front of him, he read the weekend papers and watched the revelers head to the creperies, along rue St-Jean.”

Indeed, Penny’s books almost drip with Francophone references, showing how in Quebec, Anglo and Franco worlds can mesh. Anglophone character Clara Morrow is preparing for a solo show at the very cosmopolitan Musée d’art contemporain in Montréal. Myrna Landers, who is also an English-speaker, runs Three Pines’ bookstore called “Livres neufs et usagés”, selling books in both languages. As for our Francophone hero, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the Sûreté du Québec’s head of homicide speaks impeccable English, having gone to none other than Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Penny explains that at the core of her books is an important sense of belonging that goes beyond the politics and issues that surround Canada’s two official languages. This is drawn from her own experience living in Quebec over the past 20 years: despite struggling with her French, she has never felt excluded or marginalized being an Anglo in a predominantly Francophone community.

Despite French- and English-Canadian political tensions, says Penny, “at the level where we actually live, there is very little tension. . . . I don’t want to say language and culture are trivial, but we’re a lot more alike than we are different.”

“I think there are a lot of Anglophones who feel hard done by, and Francophones who feel the same—and those people exist in the books—but they are the minority,” explains Penny. “The majority share my experience, which is that it’s just not an issue. We all bumble along. I switch from French to English, I make mistakes, people make mistakes at me, and we just manage to get through the day.”

The Gamache series abounds with duality: “[The books] are about the public face and inner thoughts; the distance between what we say and what we actually feel; the beautiful village and the hideous crimes—and the duality of French and English and the misunderstandings and miscommunications that can happen,” says Penny.

And while she admits to having been concerned that her English- or French-speaking readers might somehow misinterpret her portrait of co-existing cultures, she says the feedback from both language communities has been altogether positive. “What has been interesting for me is that the Francophone media seems really kind of perplexed by the books: they’ve been very kind and supportive, but I think it’s been an eye opener for them that there really is a very strong English fact in Quebec,” she says. “Anglophones with long histories in Quebec do exist—and many of them are unilingual English—but they’re as much Québécois as the Francophones are.”

And while some authors prefer to write more “universal” novels, Penny feels that being a Canadian author writing about a distinctly Franco-Anglo Canadian culture has worked out: “If you’re passionate about a place, I think that’s what makes a difference. I truly love Quebec, and I think it comes through—my joy of living here—and that’s what I wanted to transmit internationally.”

Published on Tuesday, May 08, 2012

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