Quebec writer Louise Penny has enjoyed an unbroken string of successes with her series of novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide squad for the Sûreté du Québec. Like most of the seven books in the series, the most recent, A Trick of the Light, is set in the fictional Eastern Townships village of Three Pines, Que. ( Bury Your Dead, published in 2010, was set mostly in Quebec City, though with a substantial subplot in Three Pines; The Murder Stone, 2008, is set mostly in a resort near Three Pines.)
After nearly 20 years as a CBC Radio journalist and host in Toronto, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Quebec City and Montreal, Penny retired from radio and began writing full-time. Her first Gamache novel, Still Life, was published in 2005, and won the “New Blood” Dagger Award in Britain, the Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel, and the Dilys, Anthony and Barry awards in the United States. All of her subsequent novels have won major crime-writing awards in three countries. She and her husband, hematologist Michael Whitehead, live in a village south of Montreal, near the U.S. border. Penny, on tour for A Trick of the Light, recently did a short question-and-answer with The Globe and Mail.
Every woman I know who has read your books is in love with Armand Gamache. Are you?
I am, actually – he's my ideal man. Hope it isn't kinky to be pleased to share him with so many other women!
In your most recent novel, A Trick of the Light, characters make jokes about the murder rate in the village of Three Pines, Que., the setting for most of your Gamache novels. Do you plan to have Gamache and company tackle crimes in other venues in future, à la Bury Your Dead? Perhaps even abroad?
Yes, Myna describes the village as akin to the Humane Society, a place for lost and abandoned creatures, then she pauses and realizes it's clearly not a “no-kill” shelter. And yes, every second book will be set somewhere else, mostly in Quebec. The next one is in a remote monastery, with a vocation for Gregorian chants. Then it's back to Three Pines. Give the village a chance to re-populate. I figure any stranger stupid enough to move into such a murderous village deserves what they get.
Could you imagine a novel set in Three Pines that did not involve a murder? A domestic drama involving, say, Peter and Clara Morrow?
Yes, I could. As you know, the murders are simply catalysts to look at human nature, and like the great novels of Josephine Tey, they can involve a mystery, or even a crime, without it being murder. However, since Gamache is the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, it would be difficult to explain his presence. Though I suppose I could write one without him – but I so enjoy his company, I'd rather not.
You seem to have a nice appreciation of visual art, its creators and its milieu. Do you paint?
No, I can't paint at all, but my husband Michael is a gifted artist and loves art. He’s the one who introduced me to the great galleries, and proved they were more than simply rooms to be rushed through on my way to the gift shop. He doesn't lecture or overtly teach, but his passion is clear. He'll stand in front of a work and lose himself. I actually enjoy looking at him. A sort of mobile masterpiece.
The books of the Gamache series always seem to be nominated for every award going, and have won most of them at one point or another. Do you still get chuffed about awards?
Yes I do. Mostly because it would be such a shame to take these great honours for granted, or as my due. Especially when so many other writers would love to win. How dare I not be filled with joy? I've seen enough successful writers who no longer seem to care when they are recognized with an award, and I think that’s just tragic. Winning doesn't mean my book is better than anyone else’s. It means I'm very fortunate. And I should be very, very aware of that. And grateful.
Besides, one day it'll be someone else’s turn to stand in the sunshine, naturally, and I’d hate to squander all these chances to celebrate.
Gamache’s German shepherd, Henri, was a considerable presence in Bury Your Dead, but not so much in A Trick of the Light. I know you have dogs of your own. Do you envision a larger role for Henri in future?
I think Henri will drift in and out of the series, so that his presence is natural, but not laboured or veer to the precious.
You started writing novels rather later in life, so your writing career has been relatively short . Do you ever wish you had started writing fiction right at the beginning?
You know, I tried. Every decade of my life I attempted to write a novel. But I had nothing to say. I was far too self-absorbed, and now I realize I was writing for others, so that they’d applaud me, see my genius, tell me how wonderful I am, or be jealous of my success. One of my favourite lines of poetry is from Auden’s elegy to Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” I had to be hurt into writing. To be wounded enough. Humbled enough. I had to learn compassion. Had to learn what it felt like to hate, and to forgive and to love and be loved. And to lose people close to me. Had to feel deep loneliness and sorrow. And then I could write.
What has the writing of the Gamache series revealed to you about yourself?
That I'm more disciplined than I thought. But I am also impatient and selfish and very anti-social. I also get hurt feelings quite easily. I feel so exposed, so naked, and when people take shots, it hurts. Oh well. C’est la vie. And what a great vie.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
H.J. Kirchhoff is deputy Books editor for The Globe and Mail.