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Louise Penny Master Class: My Canadian crime hit list

The Canadian crime maven Louise Penny leads us in an online master class on the art and craft of killer crime writing. First up: Louise surveys the Canadian crime landscape and name-drops the writers who are making their mark. 
What a great honour to be asked to be Writer in Residence, and to proudly hold the banner of Canadian Crime Fiction. Especially since that banner has been designed and created by some of the world’s best writers—who also happen to be Canadian, and happen to use crime fiction to explore what it means to be human. Giles Blunt, Maureen Jennings, Barbara Fradkin, Peter Robinson (a Brit, but a man who chooses to live in Canada, so we bestow upon him the honour), William Deverell, Ian Hamilton—and many, many more.  

The truth is, this is a burgeoning field. It’s a thrilling time to be Canadian and writing crime fiction. Look at the huge international success of Alan Bradley and his brilliant Flavia books.  Look at thriller writers like Rick Mofina and Linwood Barclay, who tops bestseller lists all over the world. Look at Owen Laukkanen and DJ McIntosh and Chevy Stevens and Peggy Blair (who won this year’s CBC Bookie Award for Best Canadian Crime Fiction)—newcomers who are setting the publishing world on fire and giving notice that Canadian crime writers are at the top of their form.

The problem with lists, of course, is that I’ve inevitably left people out, who deserve to be named. And recognized. For years Canadian crime writers got little respect, both here and abroad. While some set their books in Canada, like Rick Blechta and RJ Harlick and Vicki Delany, a number felt it necessary to set their books elsewhere if they had a hope of catching the interest of agents and publishers. And, to be honest, many still feel that way, feel that a book set in Canada is a liability. But I believe it’s no longer true, if it ever was. A book fails or succeeds not because it’s set in a thrilling (or dull) place, but by the quality of the writing, the passion, the thoughtfulness, the heart and head. How well is the story told?  

Two of our most respected mystery writers set their works in Saskatchewan—the marvelous Gail Bowen and Anthony Bidulka. Tony’s books also feature gay protagonists, and have a huge international following. Not because the world is suddenly keen to hear about being gay in Saskatoon, but because Tony is a brilliant writer.

I’ll be blogging about the importance of setting later in the month. I certainly don’t want to give you with the impression that I think Canadians should set their books here. Or that they’re selling out if they set them in the US or Britain or anywhere else. I honestly don’t believe that.  What I do believe is that there is no longer a commercial reason to set books elsewhere. Once, perhaps, but no longer. What I do want to say is this: you can set your book in a riveting place, but it you write a dull, derivative book, the setting won’t help. Or you can set it in a desert or dump or a phone booth, and the place can throb with vitality—if you’re passionate about the setting.
As Canadians, we have a story to tell. Our crime fiction is rich and varied—from funny cozies (the great Mary Jane Maffini) to dark and often disturbing and always provocative (Andrew Pyper). And we have an amazing, diverse country to set our stories in.

Emily Dickinson described novels as frigates, that take us to places we have yet to explore, places we couldn’t normally reach—both internally, our emotional landscapes, and externally.  For the next month we get to book passage together, and explore this utterly glorious time in Canadian crime fiction—we get to explore what it means to be a crime writer in Canada. And, I hope, perhaps inspire some of you to write your own books. Take us to the place inside, and outside, of yourself that you care about.       

The hope here is that you not simply watch the frigate sail away, but that you captain your own.  
Louise Penny didn't begin her writing career until her mid-forties, when she set to work on her first crime novel, Still Life. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec. Her books have been translated into 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including The New York Times, the London Times and The Globe and Mail.


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