At the start of the pandemic, as we all made plans to stay put, a friend said, “How I wish I could be in Three Pines.” I understood. Three Pines is a small village in Quebec with a good boulangerie; a bookstore that smells like tea and flowers; a bistro with an excellent chef; and a community of fascinating eccentrics. There’s the poet Ruth, who often curses and just as often says something so profound you want to tuck the line away in your pocket. There’s Clara, the brilliant artist whose dinners last into the night because the conversations are so good. And there’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, whose job is to investigate murders but whose remarkable gift is to understand people. I’m obsessed with him — with his love of literature, his quiet intelligence and his after-shave, some combination of sandalwood and rosewater. It doesn’t hurt that he likes a black licorice pipe (my mother’s favorite candy) with his café au lait. With his Scotch too.
I’m grown-up enough to know that a place this idyllic can only be mythical, and this one was imagined by Louise Penny, who has written 16 Gamache books, not one of which I’d read until a few days before she came to my apartment in Paris two years ago. She was in town to research what would be her latest novel, “All the Devils Are Here,” and a friend suggested we meet. In preparation, I baked gougères. I also made a dinner reservation for us at Juveniles, one of my favorite places, and scrambled to read her first novel. By the time she knocked on my door, I couldn’t decide whether to hug her and thank her for the pleasure the book had given me, or damn her for making me miss one stop on the No. 86 bus, two on the No. 10 Métro line and a few hours of sleep the night I wouldn’t stop reading until I got to the end. (I decided on a hug.)
Since then, I’ve read through her books, all of which include family, mystery, murder, knotty moral dilemmas, goodness lost, goodness found, dogs, a duck, children, very old people and food, lots of it. In “Devils,” the food is French, and it’s served in Paris. Gamache and his family have dinner at Juveniles — he loves the rice pudding with caramel sauce as much as Louise and I did. There’s a meal at my neighborhood bistro, Le Comptoir, where Louise, who has since become a friend, and I had lunch, and a piece of cake that a Left Bank building concierge gives to Gamache for his wife (too bad its delivery is delayed by murder). There’s a lemon tart eaten in the garden of the Musée Rodin and, later, a lemon meringue pie.