Louise Penny explains How The Light Gets In


First aired on All in a Weekend (24/08/13)

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Quebec mystery writer Louise Penny has just published the ninth book in her bestselling series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and she dropped by All in a Weekend recently to talk about How the Light Gets In -- without sharing any spoilers.

Penny told guest host Elizabeth Robertson that it's always been difficult to talk much about the books in the series "because you don't want to give too much away with a crime novel." But she says that's particularly the case with How the Light Gets In. "It was very carefully constructed, as you can imagine. Because even threads, items, settings that were an issue in the first book, Still Life, pop up here."


Penny was willing to offer some details, though. She mentioned that the setting for the previous novel, The Beautiful Mystery, was a remote monastery, rather than the village of Three Pines, which was the setting for all of the other books in the series. "This one is back in the village, and in Montreal," Penny said, adding that it takes place at Christmastime.

A Quebec Christmas is "magical, it kind of breaks almost into the mystical," she said. "It's everybody's chocolate box view of what Christmas could be and should be. And so that's what I try to paint." But that beauty is also a "counterpoint," Penny explained. "Because the books are about light and dark, and the light only comes in when there's a crack, or a violation of some sort. So it's about the juxtaposition of that great beauty and the quietude that happens with Christmas and the joy of Christmas, and the violations that are happening."

Penny said that from the time she wrote the fifth book, The Brutal Telling, "I knew how this book would end. Everything was driven toward the last paragraph of this book."

There have already been hints of something sinister going on in the Süreté du Québec, the provincial police force, and conflicts between Gamache and his superiors. But Penny brings matters to a head in How the Light Gets In. "We've all lived and worked in atmospheres that are rancid. And they don't necessarily get better," she said. "At some stage, there is a blow-up. Some kind of resolution has to happen, but it doesn't happen normally all that kindly, certainly not when you're in a community where people have guns, and ulterior motives."

Despite the fact that there's always a murder at the heart of her books, Penny describes them as being "about love, love of men and women, love of what they do, a love of family, of community." It's also about the platonic love between the "father figure" of Gamache, and his right-hand man and protege, Jean Guy Beauvoir, who are "brothers in arms." But that relationship undergoes strain in the course of the later novels. Moreover, Gamache is facing the prospect of having his department dismantled. "It looks like he's facing the end, and what's he going to be able to do about it, because all of his power, all of his influence, has been undermined," she said.

The dead body doesn't make an appearance until the fifth chapter of How the Light Gets In, which is later than in most murder mysteries. Penny acknowledged that she's been influenced by "golden age mystery writers like [Agatha] Christie and some of the others who had the murder in the first paragraph." But she cited the example of other authors such as Josephine Tey and George Simenon. "Sometimes there's not even a murder. It's a crime novel. It's a mystery, but it's not necessarily a murder mystery."

The story begins with an elderly woman, Constance Pineault, who is visiting her friend Myrna, and is invited back for Christmas. "Myrna waits and waits and she doesn't come, and she asks Gamache for help in finding out what happened to her elderly friend," Penny said.

There's a mystery surrounding the missing woman. "Constance Pineault is not who she appears to be. She appears to be this very benign, friendly elderly woman. But in fact she is one of the most famous people in the world, and is extremely private, and hides that," Penny said. "And as a result, it also makes Gamache's job that much more difficult."

Penny emphasized how much this latest novel means to her. "It is the culmination of so many things I've worked toward, that the characters have worked toward, that the readers have worked toward, and I didn't want to be hit by a bus before I got it finished," she laughed.

Penny went on to say that when she first sent the manuscript to her publishers, they were "extremely upset, because the initial draft seemed to say this is the end. And I had just signed a new three book contract."

In fact, this isn't the final book in the series, but Penny said this latest novel does bring big changes. "Not all characters are going to always survive, not all characters will survive intact," she said." When cracks are mended, things aren't necessarily the same as they always were. So there are quite profound changes for most of the characters here. But the series does continue."

The first book in Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life, has been adapted as a two-hour TV movie by CBC Television. It has its world premiere on CBC-TV on September 15, 2013, at 8 p.m. ET. Catch a sneak peek here.

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