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Alfred Molina stars as Louise Penny's beloved chief Inspector Armand Gamache in Three Pines.Laurent Guerin/Amazon Prime

Three Pines, the new Prime Video series that premiered Friday, began as ought-to-be-Canadian and ended up yes-Canadian-enough.

The source material is quintessentially Quebecois: Canadian author Louise Penny’s wildly popular, 18-and-counting novels featuring the kind-eyed inspector Armand Gamache, who solves murders in the titular Eastern Townships village. (Alfred Molina plays him in the series.) It’s a fictional burg based on Penny’s hometown of Knowlton, about 100 kilometres from Montreal, crammed with quirky characters who closely guard their secrets.

“I get letters from people who have terminal cancer, who tell me they want to spend eternity in the bistro,” Penny told me in a video interview, one of seven I conducted about the series. “You can imagine how meaningful that is to me. We all want to belong somewhere. That’s what Three Pines offers readers.”

In Gamache’s world, murders are merely inciting incidents – what he wants to solve is less who-done-it, more why-done-it. A rarity in crime fiction, Gamache isn’t tortured or angst-ridden; he’s a moral, happily married mentor, a man you’d want holding your hand through dark times. “It’s easy to write someone who’s drunk, or at war with himself,” Penny says. “It’s harder to write a decent person struggling to retain that decency.”

When Molina’s granddaughter asked him what Gamache’s superpower is, he replied, “empathy” – for both victims and perpetrators. “ ‘I can see myself doing that,’ ” he says, “is much more interesting to play than, ‘I would never do that.’ ”

Louise Penny's Kingdom of the Blind, a Armand Gamache novel, slays

“Gamache doesn’t think a killer is an evil person who doesn’t belong in society, so just lock them up,” agrees Rossif Sutherland, who plays Gamache’s sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir. “To him, in the wrong circumstance, anybody can be a killer. We’re living in a turbulent world, full of anger and frustration. It’s interesting to watch a detective who can get the truth out of somebody with kindness, rather than by pointing a gun at them.”

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Three Pines' detective Isabelle Lacoste (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers) was re-written as Indigenous for the show.Laurent Guerin/Amazon Prime

Penny’s formula clearly works. In a Washington Post survey of the best loved literary detectives, Gamache won, beating even Sherlock Holmes. Her books have been published in 23 languages, won scads of prizes, and earned her the Orders of Quebec and of Canada. Sutherland, who spent formative summers and Christmases in the Townships (his father Donald has a home there), got the gig before he read them; when he asked Townships friends if they’d heard of this Louise Penny, “everyone looked at me like I’d dropped down from the moon.”

So Canadian entertainment industry watchers were skeptical when Penny, who held tight for years to the movie and TV rights, finally sold to the British company Left Bank, which produces, among other series, The Crown, Outlander and Behind Her Eyes. “Three Pines’ stories are Canadian, but they’re also global,” John Phillips, the series executive producer, says. “They’re about humanity, community, injustice.”

The British screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo (The Tunnel) is the showrunner – she developed her own interest in why-done-it during her eight years working in prisons rehabilitating offenders. Her writing staff for Season 1 included zero Canadians.

But di Girolamo and Phillips are no fools. They want this series to run and run, which means being mindful about the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s possible tightening of Canadian content rules for streaming services. They also know fans expect Three Pines to throb with the vibe of Quebec. So they flew to Montreal and did a thorough reconnaissance, visiting the Ashukan Cultural Centre and the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve. They hired Tracey Deer (Beans), who is Mohawk, to direct two episodes and to serve as a consultant for the entire series, alongside Katsitsionni Melissa Fox and IllumiNative. They also hired Quebec director Daniel Grou.

“It can be a healthy thing for a Canadian show to be produced by people from Britain,” Sutherland posits. “They discover things with fresh eyes. They ask questions that we might take for granted. And you get new answers.”

Di Girolamo rewrote two key characters to be Indigenous – town leader Bea Mayer (Tantoo Cardinal) and detective Isabelle Lacoste (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers). “We worked to bring a nuance, depth and complexity to the characters, because there’s a problematic history in film and television of Indigenous characters being this clichéd monolith,” Tailfeathers says. “Isabelle is always asking herself what it means to be an Indigenous person operating inside a system that oppresses Indigenous people. The RCMP was created to police Indigenous people, and we see police brutality and racial profiling of Indigenous people on a daily basis.”

As the scripts evolved, a moment from the books that is a painful memory for Gamache – watching passersby ignore a Mohawk woman protesting on behalf of her missing daughter – grew to a full-season arc centred on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The writers and directors had to balance the heaviness of that with Penny’s lighter, more Murder, She Wrote plot lines. So Bea’s art gallery now displays paintings and sculptures commissioned from Indigenous artists, including Kent Monkman, Robin Marquis and Jaime Black; and the soundtrack includes music from Elisapie, The Bearhead Sisters and Riit. They shot all eight episodes on location in Montreal and the village of Saint-Armand, and 95 per cent of the cast and crew were Canadian.

“Gamache is trying to understand this community, trying to find a way to reach them with respect. And at the same time do his job,” Molina says. “It’s crucial that he acknowledges, ‘I know we haven’t done our best with Indigenous people and need to do better.’ ”

The actor spent a lot of time with Cardinal, learning the history of residential schools, another plot point. “She’s lived this experience, but she doesn’t have time for grievance or rage,” he says. “She wants to emphasize the joy and resilience of the Indigenous communities.”

Molina also served as a role model to his onscreen mentees, Tailfeathers and Sutherland. Tailfeathers was a bit star-struck at first – “A scene of his in Boogie Nights blows my mind every time I watch it,” she says, laughing. “He’s in his underwear and a silk robe, there’s cocaine and gunshots. But he’s a dream to work with, so generous and present. And really funny.”

“On screen I always saw Alfred as this brilliant teddy bear who I wanted to hug and listen to him talk,” Sutherland says. “The good thing is, he’s very huggable and he talks a lot. He’s a gentleman and a great leader.”

Deer delivered extensive notes on the scripts, all eight of which had been written before she was hired. “They took every single note,” she says. On set, she worked with each department to ensure that the Mohawk characters’ wardrobe, jewellery and homes were authentic. She also changed a character from a one-note drug dealer into a seller of bulk tobacco, which added real-world nuance to his conflict with the Sûreté du Québec.

“That said,” Deer adds, “if they’d had an Indigenous person working on the show from the start, wow, where could that have built from?”

Though Prime Video’s Amazon hasn’t ordered a second season yet, di Girolamo and her team are developing scripts – and this time they hired a Canadian writer, Penny Gummerson (Trickster, Cardinal), who is Métis and grew up in Flin Flon, Man.

For Penny, handing over her life’s work was “terrifying. These books are not cash cows for me; they come from a deep place within me. If you get Gamache wrong, you can’t recover. I was afraid they’d go to a washed-up ex-Hollywood pretty boy. Or Helen Mirren. But when they suggested Alfred Molina, I’ll never forget that moment, because all my fears went away. To watch him on screen was extremely emotional for me.”

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Arisawe (Georgina Lynn Lightning) and Kara Two-Rivers (Isabel Deroy-Olson) are part of a story arc that centres on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.Amazon Prime

She calls the series’ foregrounding of Indigenous storylines “absolute genius – I wish I’d thought of it.” Her latest novel, A World of Curiosities, which arrived Nov. 29, incorporates into Gamache’s backstory a different Canadian tragedy: the anti-feminist massacre of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. Penny, a radio journalist before becoming a novelist, covered the story for the CBC.

“To my horror, I swallowed whole the idea it was an isolated incident of a madman,” she says. “That it wasn’t misogyny, wasn’t institutionalized. It wasn’t until a few days in that I listened to the quieter voices of the families and the victims and realized yes, mental health is part of it, but what made this possible? Misogyny.”

Penny and Hillary Clinton are also consulting on a film adaptation of State of Terror, the best-selling novel they co-wrote about a U.S. Secretary of State who staves off a global crisis. Will they write a sequel? “Well, the publishers certainly want us to,” Penny replies impishly.

She’s relieved that the series Three Pines emphasizes a central tenet in her novels: “You can make the choice to be decent, to stand up for what you believe in.” But as elegantly as Molina embodies that, and as friendly as they’ve become off screen – they were dining together the night we spoke – Penny won’t picture him as she writes her next Gamache novel. “I need my own vision,” she says. Her very Canadian one.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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