Aug 28 2017 3:00pm

Cultural Inspirations for the Inspector Gamache Series

Louise Penny is the critically acclaimed author of the Chief Inspector Gamache series, set in the enchanting town of Three Pines. Recently, Minotaur Books has been exploring creative works of cultural significance from the world of Three Pines by showcasing a cultural inspiration from each of the books in the series. With the release of the Glass Houses tomorrow, we wanted to share this amazing project! Below are small snippets from each cultural inspiration—follow the links for the full write up!

Still Life

In the bedroom Clara picked up the well-worn book beside Jane’s bed, C.S. Lewis’s, Surprised by Joy. It smelled of Floris. (Still Life, page 242, Trade Paper Edition)

Originally published in 1955, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is C.S. Lewis’s look back on his conversion to Christianity and the idea of what actual “joy” means to him.

The title of Lewis’s memoir comes from William Wordsworth’s 1815 sonnet, “Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind”, which was written in the wake of his three-year old daughter’s death and begins as follows:

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A Fatal Grace

Let every man shovel out his own snow, and the whole city will be passable, said Gamache. (Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, A Fatal Grace, page 135, Trade Paper Edition)

A fitting quote for A Fatal Grace, which takes place in the dead (with the dead?) of winter. Emerson, the author of “Self -Reliance” and “Nature” among other essays conceived the idea of Transcendentalism and was a pillar of the American Romantic movement. The eminent literary critic, Harold Bloom, called Emerson the “American version of Montaigne” and like the irascible Ruth, Emerson was a poet!

Strangely enough, Emerson wrote that line sometime in the summer of 1840 so, as one would expect, Emerson is being purely metaphorical here and is, in fact, referring to civic duty. Gamache seemingly uses the quote flippantly to refer to the inclement weather, even engaging Beauvoir in a very funny tête–à–tête about Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, the 70’s prog rock super band (Sadly, I just learned of Greg Lake’s passing as I write this). But, I digress.

John Adams simply and succinctly defined civic duty as, “To be good, and to do good”, adding it’s “all we have to do”. And, Gamache himself, echoes a similar refrain on civility when quoting Gandhi later in the book (page 219):

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The Cruelest Month

Gamache took the bread to the long pine table, set for dinner, then returned to the living room. He reflected on T.S. Eliot and thought the poet had called April the cruelest month not because it killed flowers and buds on the trees, but because sometimes it didn’t. How difficult it was for those who didn’t bloom when all about was new life and hope. (The Cruelest Month, page 248, Trade Paperback Edition)

How serendipitous to offer this post up in the month of April when the novel itself is set and the month—by way of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—that has provided one of the most recognizable lines in modernist poetry.

Originally published in The Criterion in 1922, The Waste Land was conceived by Eliot during what has come to have been described as a nervous breakdown and was heavily influenced by many things, including the Grail Legend, the work of James Joyce, Homer, and Hermann Hesse. The poem defines the prevailing desperation of the post-World War I generation as well as Eliot’s own tortured time.

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A Rule Against Murder

“The mind is its own place, monsieur,” said Reine-Marie. “Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (A Rule Against Murder)

Echoed from John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the quote above appears numerous times throughout Louise’s fourth book and serves as the defining mantra of the work.

Originally published in 1667, Milton’s masterpiece has been interpreted in many ways—a scathing rebuke of corruption in the Anglican Church, a critical view of the Monarchy, a warning tome on civil war, and, as C.S. Lewis saw it, a straightforward morality tale. For those of you who have read our entry on Still Life, you know how big C.S. Lewis looms in Louise’s life and work. Professor Lewis was also quite the Milton scholar. He lectured extensively on the make-up and merits of Paradise Lost and wrote a singular thesis on the poem, A Preface to Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1942.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a morality tale as “a story or narrative from which one can derive a moral about right and wrong” and when boiled down A Rule Against Murder is just that: a choice between good or bad and how those decisions may lead to ruin. Or as Gamache observes, “To have it all and lose it. That’s what this case was about.”

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The Brutal Telling

“In the letter she said that her father had said something to her. Something horrible and unforgivable.”

“The Brutal Telling.”

“That’s how she described it.”

(The Brutal Telling)

If you’ve read Louise’s fifth novel in the Inspector Gamache Series, you’ll recognize this scene, in which Clara Morrow explains the phrase “The Brutal Telling”. The phrase was first used by the Modernist Canadian painter Emily Carr to describe a horrific falling out with her father.

Here she is with her Javanese monkey, Woo, who plays an important part in Louise’s book. And as Superintendent Therese Brunel points out, “She adored all animals, but Woo above all.”

Carr was born in 1871 in British Columbia, one of nine children and, by all accounts, had a relatively stable childhood up until “The Brutal Telling” episode. Clara describes the mysterious incident to Inspector Gamache as thus, “She went from being a happy, carefree child to an embittered woman. Very solitary, not very likable.” Whatever terrible transgression took place (to this day, the details are unknown), it propelled Emily to travel to the isolated regions of Canada where she recorded, through her paintings, the vanishing indigenous cultures that resided there.

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Bury Your Dead

“Dulce et Decorum est,” the Archeologist said.

“Pro patria mori,” Gamache finished.

“You know Horace?” Croix asked.

“I know the quote.”

(Bury Your Dead, Page 130, Trade Paperback Edition)

The quote is indeed Horace and originates in his Odes (111.2.13) and as Dr. Croix, the archeologist, points out, essentially means, “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” To which Gamache replies—to the shock of Croix—”It is an old and dangerous lie. It might be necessary, but it is never sweet and rarely right. It’s a tragedy.”

This exchange takes place in the basement of the chapel of the Ursuline convent where General Montcalm was buried after his death on the Plains of Abraham, a pivotal battle in the Seven Years War. Montcalm most certainly died for his country and in doing so ceded control of Quebec City—and eventually all of Canada—to the English.

Horace wrote the original words to inspire his own countrymen, the Romans, to reach war-like heights in the face of their enemies.

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A Trick of the Light

“There is strong shadow where there is much light”

(A Trick of the Light, Page 10, Trade Paperback Edition)

Jean Guy Beauvoir quotes these words to Annie Gamache at the beginning of Louise’s 7th novel. When asked where the phrase originates, Beauvoir says, “Some German guy said it.”

That “German guy” is none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the quote originally appeared in 1773 in his play, “Götz von Berlichingen”. Goethe’s drama focused on the life of Gottfried von Berlichingen, a Knight who fought in the Crusades, lost his arm to cannon fire, and wore a prosthetic “Iron Fist” thereafter.

While the quote itself (“There is strong shadow where there is much light”) seemingly fits perfectly with the title of Louise’s book, like all things in Penny’s work, there is deeper meaning.

Goethe uses Götz as a symbol of an individual with integrity—be it a free spirit, a rebel, an artist, etc.—trying to live within a dishonest society. Sure sounds a lot like our dear Chief Inspector Gamache, no?

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The Beautiful Mystery

“Some malady is coming upon us,” Gamache quoted under his breath. “We wait. We wait.” (The Beautiful Mystery, Page 110, Trade Paperback Edition)

Gamache’s quote above, as he points out, is a direct line from T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, and he repeats it in Louise’s eighth novel when confronted by an ominous plaque that may hold a clue to murder. Eliot’s play is a perfect reference as Gamache has come to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups to investigate a homicide.

Murder in the Cathedral, as Gamache tells the reader, details the assassination of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket, who had a long running feud with King Henry II over the rights of the Church verse those of the Royal Government, was bludgeoned and hacked to death in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral by way of the King’s command. Becket was later canonized as Saint Thomas and today is regarded as the “protector of the secular clergy.”

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How the Light Gets In

“ . . . finally, I’d like to thank Leonard Cohen. The book is named after an excerpt from his poem/song — ‘Anthem.’” (Louise Penny, Acknowledgements, How the Light Gets In)

Louise goes on to tell us that she first used the words in her second book.

“Gamache leaned in and put on his reading glasses.

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget the perfect offering,

There’s a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

He read it out loud. Beautiful.” (A Fatal Grace, Page 174)

Cohen, a Canadian and Quebecker like Louise, passed away last November and was hailed by Nick Cave as “the greatest songwriter of them all.” Anthem appeared on his 1992 album, The Future, but the song was a long time coming. It took Cohen 10 years to write and he reflected late in life on how much the song meant to him, “There’s not a line in it that I couldn’t defend.”

How the Light Gets In, the ninth Chief Inspector Gamache novel, is a harrowing tale of deep-seated corruption both political and moral. And, at its heart, the sanctity of Three Pines itself.

On page 117 of the novel, Gamache ponders, “Three Pines, he knew, was not immune to dreadful loss. To sorrow and pain. What Three Pines had wasn’t immunity but a rare ability to heal. And that’s what they offered him.”

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The Long Way Home

Gamache kept his large hand splayed over the cover of the book, forcing it shut as though trapping the story inside.

Then he lifted his hand and showed it to [Clara], but when she reached out for it, Gamache drew it back. Not far, barely noticeable. But far enough.

“The Balm in Gilead,” she read the title, and searched her memory. “There’s a book called Gilead. I read it a few years ago. By Marilynne Robinson. Won the Pulitzer.”

“Not the same,” Gamache assured her.

The Long Way Home (37-38, Trade Paper Edition)

Though not the same as the 2004 book, Louise does acknowledge Robinson’s novel as “remarkable” and, in fact, two pages later in The Long Way Home Clara quotes directly from Robinson’s work, “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.”

And while Robinson’s novel itself is set in a fictional town in Iowa, the title was influenced by the Biblical town of Gilead which means “hill of testimony” and was situated east of the Jordan River.

Gilead is first mentioned in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 8:22) and the actual “balm” refers to a healing salve that was indigenous to the area. In the New Testament the “balm” becomes a symbol for Christ himself, who God sends to heal the suffering of his people. Those of you who have read The Long Way Home know that the notion of healing is paramount to the story. The hymnal that Gamache covets is almost certainly from Washington Glass’s book, The Sinner’s Cure, first published in 1854.

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The Nature of the Beast

“There’s been weapons since there’s been man,” said Delorme. “Neanderthals had them. It’s the nature of the beast.” (The Nature of the Beast, Page 186, Trade Paperback Edition)

For those of you who have read the 11th installment in the Louise Penny canon, you know that this retort, directed at Gamache, comes at a crucial moment in the plot. It’s the only time the phrase, the nature of the beast, is used within the novel but the power it conveys is so strong it titles the book. The Oxford Dictionary defines the expression as “The inherent and unchangeable character of something” and the phrase itself first appeared in John Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs which was published in the 1600’s.

The origin of the idiom is murky and has been interpreted in many ways since it was first uttered. In Louise’s novel, it is both a reference to human nature, and a haunting evocation of something far more malevolent. The biblical beast, who waged war against God in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations. Here is the moment, from The Nature of the Beast, when the investigators begin to get an inkling of what they might be up against:

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A Great Reckoning

It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
—William Shakespeare (Epigraph, A Great Reckoning)

The Shakespeare quote comes from the comedic play, As You Like It (Act III, Scene III), and is believed to have been written in 1599. The line is a direct reference to Christopher Marlowe’s death which occurred six years earlier under extremely suspicious circumstances.

Marlowe, a mercurial figure in Elizabethan England, was a rumored spy, a possible heretic, a poet, and, above all, the greatest playwright of his era, up until his untimely death at the age of 29, when Shakespeare would assume the mantle.

The “reckoning” that led to Marlowe being stabbed to death was purportedly over an unpaid bill, although the man who wielded the dagger, Ingram Frizer, was—like Marlowe—linked to espionage and the motive for murder was perhaps more political than pound sterling based.

So great was Marlowe’s influence on the Bard that there are theories that Marlowe was indeed Shakespeare himself. For over 400 years, the question of “did Shakespeare actually pen the plays attributed to him?” has loomed large. Marlowe is but one of the possible candidates. Others include Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Sir Walter Raleigh, and—the most curious of all in my opinion—Amelia Bassano Lanyer.

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Make sure to check back at on September 13th to learn more about the cultural inspirations for the newest Chief Inspector Gamache novel, Glass Houses!

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