An Affable Canadian Author With a Penchant for Murder
Posted May 25, 2018 2:45 p.m. EDT
KNOWLTON, Quebec — Louise Penny, the unfailingly cheery detective writer, is a ruthless killer.
In her murder plots, bad things happen in placid Canadian territory. She has bashed a prior in the head with an iron door knocker at a cloistered monastery; electrocuted a deeply unpopular socialite on the ice during a curling tournament; and literally frightened someone to death at a séance.
“I am a killing machine but a happy one — I get all my resentments out in my books,” Penny, 59, said with a devilish laugh from her cozy, art-filled home in Knowlton — the Eastern Townships village where she lives and that inspired Three Pines, the fictional setting of her 13 books.
The table where she writes overlooks woods dotted with snow-covered pines ideally suited for concealing a corpse. On the walls hang paintings of a mysterious bejeweled woman and King Leopold II of Belgium. A throw cushion with the words “goodness exists” is perched on an armchair. “My books are about what happened that someone had to die,” she adds.
Penny’s detective novels — more intricately wrought tone poems than procedurals — are suffused with Canadian history and populated by an eccentric cast, among them a cranky poet with a pet duck and a penchant for four-letter words. At their moral center is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, who excavates the dark secrets of Three Pines, seeing beyond the pristine surfaces of daily life.
In so doing, Gamache has become to Canada what Hercule Poirot is to Belgium, and garnered Penny legions of messianic fans. At last count, she has sold 6.3 million books worldwide. Seldom has murder induced such hunger pangs, with characters who crack cases while indulging in maple-cured rashers of back bacon and wild blueberry jam.
Hillary Clinton confided in her recent memoir that Penny’s books brought her solace after her bruising election defeat. Such is the cult of Penny that droves of enthusiastic readers from across the world make pilgrimages to Quebec to take a 2-1/2-hour tour based on her best-selling novel “Bury Your Dead,” where they can walk in the footsteps of Gamache as he investigates the murder of an amateur archaeologist at the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec.
Now writing book No. 15 in her series (No. 14, “Kingdom of the Blind,” is to be published in November), Penny notes wryly that little Three Pines has struggled to “sustain the murder count.” (The village’s name, she explains, refers to three pines that were sometimes planted on Canadian territory during the American Revolution as a signpost of safety for British royalists fleeing across the border.) In a province where linguistic tensions between the French majority and English minority are never far from the surface, Penny is a rare Anglophone writer whose main character is French Canadian. Tellingly, her books were published in 25 languages, including Estonian, before they were translated into Canadian French in 2010.
“My books are love letters to Quebec — the language of my characters is French, and I wanted my characters to live in that language,” she said, referring to the belated translation of her books into French. Nevertheless, she conceded that her own French had sometimes failed her. She once ordered “flaming mice” in a Quebec City restaurant, while trying to order “flaming cherries,” and accidentally praised Quebecers as “good pumpkins” rather than “good citizens” at a diplomatic function.
Penny, who frequently bursts into raucous laughter, says she is still treasuring a literary success that came somewhat late in life — she was 46 when her first novel, “Still Life,” was published after being rejected or ignored by 50 publishers. Nevertheless, she says that experiencing dark times helps her to conjure “the trail of rancid emotions” that prompts her killers to kill. Her streak of rural carnage, she says, was also partly inspired by a line from “Herman Melville,” a poem by W.H. Auden: “Evil is unspectacular and always human.” She derived further inspiration, she said, from her years covering crime stories — drug wars, biker gangs and murders — for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The daughter of money managers, Penny spent 18 years as a radio journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Thunder Bay, Ontario; Montreal and Quebec City. She said that she turned to alcohol to help her deal with a gnawing loneliness, self-loathing and fear that had buffeted her since she was a teenager, and by age 35, had contemplated suicide.
“I had developed an unhealthy worldview, which was that the world is a scary place filled with people who want to or are capable of doing harm,” she said. “I know what it’s like to hate yourself so much that you have to murder yourself. Coming out the other side gave me a profound belief that goodness exists.”
That realization, she said, became the leitmotif of her books.
Penny credits a call to Alcoholics Anonymous and falling in love with her husband, Michael Whitehead, a pediatric hematologist who died in 2016, for helping to tame her demons. It was a slow, painful process.
After quitting the CBC in her late 30s to write “the greatest historical novel ever,” Penny suffered five years of writer’s block, bingeing on gummy bears and Oprah reruns. One day, she says, she looked at her bedside table, brimming with books by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and had the epiphany that the detective genre was her calling. Gamache soon arrived in her imagination, fully formed but lacking a name.
“I can still feel the nubbly bedspread underneath my hands when it came to me, that I just needed to write — it is so stupid, so self-evident, so banal — a book that I would read,” Penny said. “I went down to the kitchen and drew a map of Three Pines. Then, one day I walked into a tailor and saw this kindly man with big brown eyes, and said, ‘Ah, that’s who you are!’ His name was Gamache.”
Urged on by her husband, Penny wrote her first draft of “Still Life,” which introduces Gamache as he investigates the murder of a beloved Three Pines artist who is shot in the heart with an arrow. “I wanted to write books that my 8-year-old self would read. I created a village where I would live, populated with characters I would befriend and a main character I would marry.”
Unable to find a publisher and consumed by insecurity, Penny said she was on the verge of giving up when she was awarded second place in a British crime-writing contest. Determined to find a literary agent, she attended the award ceremony in London, but none of the agents she had dreamed of meeting turned up.
Despondent, she went to a fundraiser in North London, where she happened upon a “beautiful blue pashmina scarf.”
“I went to pick it up it, and soon found myself in a violent tug of war with a British woman who had her claws in it,” Penny recalled.
“Who are you,” she asked indignantly.
“And who are you?” the woman barked back.
When the other woman uttered her name — Teresa Chris, an influential agent for writers of crime fiction — Penny said she let go of the scarf. “I think I may have even bought it for her,” she added, cackling. Chris became her agent and found her a publisher.
She has since written a book a year for the past 13 years, waking up at 6:30 each morning to write. Through it all, she says, Gamache has remained a steadfast companion, bringing her comfort while she nursed her beloved husband. While the books have been commercial and critical successes, Penny says she avoids reading reviews of her work. She keeps a poster with a quote by Irish poet Seamus Heaney hanging in front of her writing refuge. On it are the words “Noli Timere” — “Be Not Afraid.”