“Who hurt you, once, so far beyond repair?”
This phrase gets repeated often in Louise Penny’s mystery novels. She puts it into the mouth of one of the main characters – a swearing, Scotch-swilling poet – in her bestselling series. The line, taken with permission from a poem by Marylyn Plessner, speaks to Penny’s core project, a central concern that has drawn millions of readers, me among them, to her unconventional whodunnits. Are we, after enduring certain hurts, beyond repair? Or can we, like some of Penny’s characters – like she herself has done – not only survive our various wounds, but find a way to thrive after sustaining them?
A tall woman, with a presence both formidable and warm, Penny barely touches her half of a matcha muffin during an interview at a café in her adopted hometown, Knowlton, Que.
“My books aren’t about murder, not really,” she says. “Though that sounds maybe odd.”
Her 15th book, A Better Man, comes out this August. If it matches the sales of her last few, it’ll sit at or near the top of The New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller lists for some time. Penny has sold more than 8.5 million books and won, often multiple times, this popular genre’s top awards.
On launch day, Aug. 24, readers from around the world, members of what one reporter has called the Penny Posse, are expected to gather on Knowlton’s Village Green. The book goes on sale everywhere Aug. 27. Then, this fall, Penny will travel abroad and across Canada for promotional interviews in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. She relishes the events, she says, even if she has to tamp down a long-standing fear of flying to get to them.
“I realized,” she says, “I could not have a robust and successful writing career and a phobia of flying at the same time. So I went to therapy, even hypnosis, and finally just got on planes.”
She has done what it takes to make hers a robust career, turning out a sequel most years and communicating with her readers via blog, e-newsletter and Facebook. But even working at it as she does, she says she’s surprised this level of success came her way – and so relatively late in life. After a long career as a CBC reporter, she took up writing in her 30s and published her first book, Still Life, in 2005, in her early 40s.
“What are the chances?” she says. “I’m a middle-aged woman writing in what the rest of the world would consider the middle of nowhere – Canada – and writing about the middle of nowhere. It does not have New York Times bestseller written all over it.”
The new book returns to Three Pines, Penny’s fictional Quebec village, a sort of sanctuary for lost souls: a therapist-turned-bookstore owner; that foul-mouthed poet; a gay couple who run the local bistro, inn and antique store combo (and whose careful individuation saves them from cliché); and a painter coping with the recent loss of her husband.
“It’s a love letter to the scene that’s actually here. I feel badly when people visit, my publisher especially, since they soon discover that I have no imagination,” Penny says with one of the many laughs that punctuate the interview.
She has often said that the sleuth of her books, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, grew out of her sense of her husband, hematologist Michael Whitehead, who worked at the Montreal Children’s Hospital – so much so that, after his death at 82 of dementia in 2016, she worried she wouldn’t be able to carry on writing the books.
“I thought it would be too painful,” says Penny, now 61. She didn’t force herself to start writing again, but a few months after his death, a fully formed sentence for an as-yet-unwritten book came to her, prompting her to sit down at her usual spot, the dining-room table, and resume her work, usually banging out a thousand or more words a day.
“It’s maybe silly, but something Terry Fox wrote in his diary helps me: He said when he got up in the mornings, he didn’t set out to run to Victoria.”
In this book, Gamache, the sometimes head of the Sûreté du Québec, is asked to track down a woman who has disappeared while postwinter floods bear down on the little town, Montreal and Quebec at large. Once again, it displays how she has mastered the elements of the mystery writer’s craft – setting up in clean prose a puzzle with false clues and real ones, moving toward a solution. But the deeper reward lies in how the books probe the psyches of Gamache, his family and colleagues, as well as this circle of small-town bohemians, the author picking off her characters, psychologically at least, one by one.
Her characters are all wounded in different ways. Her sleuth, for one, is no invulnerable lone wolf, but a man who relies on the people around him and who believes wisdom begins when you admit your mistakes and ask for help. This way of thinking, and another character’s struggle with addiction to opioids, owe much to Penny’s own experience.
An increasingly heavy drinker from her 20s to her mid-30s, she thought of committing suicide. “I had no friends, the phone didn’t ring, I was probably a few months away from losing my job.” She once said, “Had I a gun, I would have blown my head off.” She credits a call to Alcoholics Anonymous and, after a year of sobriety, meeting Whitehead for pulling her back from the brink.
It was he who encouraged her to pursue her childhood dream of writing – and supported her while she tried. But this, too, didn’t come easily. She put her first effort, a historical novel she worked on for five years, into a drawer, before finding her way to writing Still Life. Rejected by about 50 publishers, it almost died, too, but she decided to send it in to a British literary contest, where it came second, drawing interest from a London agent and publisher. (“She was hurt that publishers in Canada didn’t recognize her book,” childhood friend Wendy Mesley said. “But furious, too, because she knew it was good.”)
Penny is right, not surprisingly, that her books aren’t really about murder, nor even about death. Instead, they’re paeans to life’s pleasures, small and large, and explorations of how to endure pain.
On the pleasure side of the equation, she writes well about food. “I use it to give a sense of place, Quebec, and also to break down the fourth wall, to make the reader feel invited in.”
A dog owner (who has just lost her golden retriever, Bishop, when we meet), she also speaks to the often profound bond between people and their domestic animals.
She also serves up a moving portrait of the relationship between Gamache and his rock-solid wife, Reine-Marie, a depiction of the deepening connection that can arise in a true marriage of minds. After some of Gamache’s colleagues die in a raid he led, he decides, despite his own grievous wounds, that he must march in their lengthy funerary procession – and she accepts that he must do this, whatever the physical cost.
As a series, the books also do a good job speaking about the satisfactions and challenges of an artist’s life. For her interest in the arts, she gives some credit to her mother. Penny grew up in a well-to-do North Toronto family.
“She lived in what I thought was a huge mansion, with a den,” Mesley says. "We visited each other’s cottages, hers fabulous in the Laurentians, mine 12-by-12 in the Kawarthas. I thought her life was perfect.”
But all did not glitter for long. Her parents divorced, leaving the girl living with her almost-broke mother. Her mother used some of her first paycheque to buy a piece of art they could ill afford. “She wanted to make a point to me,” Penny has said, “about the importance of beauty.”
Judging by the books, point taken.
All of this is very cozy, but what ultimately draws me is how she paints a particularly harsh slice of the Canadian experience and how, more generally, she describes the way people process trauma.
Penny sets her fourth book, A Rule Against Murder, at what she acknowledges is a thinly disguised version of the Manoir Hovey, the renowned Eastern Townships inn. The guests are the family of one of her Three Pines artists, a group of wealthy anglos from Montreal and Toronto who make the toxic WASPs in Edward Albee look positively benign. (They’re great as suspects for a murder, because you believe any one of them would do it between sips of a gin and tonic.) Brought up (like Penny herself) in this tribe, the artist character tries, over the course of several books, to escape his inherited belief system.
“I am writing about this old idea, that ‘he who travels fastest travels alone,’” Penny says, quoting a Kipling poem. “It was part of my upbringing, but it’s simply not true – this myth of self-reliance.”
After her crash, with lots of help and some fortitude, she has found joy in her life and work. “Surprised by joy” – a line from William Wordsworth – is the line she’s had carved into a bench marking her husband’s passing in New York’s Central Park. She’s found a community far from where she grew up that, as Three Pines does for her characters, has taken her in, given her much, allowed her to give much back.
“The real blessing is not that I’ve had a book published,” she has written in the acknowledgments to one of them, “but that I have so many people to thank."
Penny’s books and her biography both speak to the possibility that, if we’re lucky, we can come back, even if it seems we’ve been hurt beyond repair.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.