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Characters in Crime

The marrying kind

Louise Penny on how she came up with the much beloved Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and where she gets her ideas for her villains and their crimes.

(This interview has been transcribed and condensed from audio for publication)

Chief inspector Gamache is one of the most beloved fictional detectives in Canada. Where did he come from?
Initially I was going to make him younger, maybe in his mid-to-late 30’s, and very conflicted, with a bad marriage, or a hoarder or something awful like that.  And frankly, I knew I would be living with this character for at least a year while I wrote the first book, maybe even for the rest of my life, and I thought: “Do I really want to spend the rest of my life with someone so unpleasant in my head?” I can finally create a man—be God-like in my powers—so why not create a man I would want to live with? So I gave him all the qualities of a man I would marry. I made him kind—kind for me is really important—it’s more important than body type, it’s even more important even than being smart! So he’s a good man who struggles sometimes to be good, but he is a good man. 

Does his character continue to surprise you after eight books?
I do feel he’s like my husband. He is someone who doesn’t shock me. Very little of what he does comes completely out of left field. But I try to put him in different situations where I don’t really know how he’s going to react. Where I think: he should probably kill that person! (laughs) Or he should stand up for himself or maybe not; maybe the courageous path is to step back. I love doing that! I sometimes get it wrong, and I sometimes get it right, but I love exploring that inside him. The gun is the least interesting thing in any character. Anyone can carry a gun, but can you carry integrity? Can you carry the courage of your convictions? That’s what’s interesting.  

How do you develop the villains in your books?
Well I don’t do serial killers and I don’t do psychopaths. For me it is way more interesting that “the bad guy” be one of us, someone who is indistinguishable in every way from us. Auden talked about evil being unspectacular and always human. And that’s what I like: I love the unspectacular evil! Evil never the less, but it sits at our table and looks at us through the mirror and has a name like Louise or Christopher. 

Do you have to be able to sympathize with your villain?
It’s really important to humanize the victim and not trivialize the crime. But I think it really is important to know that for the most part, most crime isn’t committed by horrific frothing-at-the-mouth people. These are people who are making very bad choices in their lives. And perhaps have made a series of bad choices.  I think it’s much more interesting if there’s some ambivalence there as well. I think it invites us in. 

Emily Dickinson talked about “novels being frigates that take us to place we couldn’t normally go.” That’s certainly true in terms of a novel set in Venice or set in 14th-century Rome, but I think what she was talking about was that frigates will take us to places inside ourselves we couldn’t normally go. If you’re talking about deeply held emotions and ambivalence, you’re inviting the readers to explore an area of themselves and say: “What would I do?”

What comes first, the crime or the villain? 
Often, the reason comes first. The crime often is the least interesting, and it’s become less interesting as the series has progressed. The reason for it is always the most interesting and that comes first and then the villain, and then the victim. 

You were saying that you’ve noticed a change in crime fiction, that it’s now more about character than it is about the crime. 
I think that’s true. I think we’re in a golden age right now of crime fiction in Canada. Look at Canadian crime writers, there’s such breadth and depth and different styles and different types. But I think one of the things that most of us have in common, in Canada and internationally, are strong recurring series characters. People don’t come back to my books because they find the crimes fascinating—I hope they do—but they come back to the books because I hope the fourth wall has come down and people aren’t watching the action, they’re walking with the characters, beside the characters. They are part of it and I’m not alone in doing that. That’s what so many crime fiction writers are doing. And so the readers are engaged. It’s much more interesting, it’s much more compelling and it’s much more difficult for everyone: for the readers and the writers! 

What do you think makes for good characters in crime fiction? Do you have any advice for an aspiring crime writer? 
All I can do is talk about what I did: I created characters whose company I would enjoy. Even the bad guys! I think they have to be compelling in some way. I think quirky isn’t as interesting as it once was. You don’t want necessarily a character who has three legs or a second head growing or whatever! That’s a shortcut. I think the more in touch you are with yourself and your own ambivalence, and your own capacity for evil and jealousy and anger and love, the more real the characters you create will be. Anyone who tries to do shorthand or writes simply for the market, may have one great book or good book, but probably will not have a career.

I think it has to come from somewhere deep down. An idea doesn’t make a book, what makes a book is the writer falling in love with that idea, with those characters, with the setting and bring it all together and bringing that passion and that joy and that love, even if it’s dark, to the reader. And not force feeding the reader—reading is as creative as writing is. As a writer, I think I get the easy part of it. For the most part I suggest and the reader fills-in the other half. So we’re two halves of a whole. Allow the reader to do that, to bring their own life experience to the characters. 

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 more than 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including the New York Times, the London Times and the Globe and Mail. Her novels have won most of the major international awards, including the British Dagger, the Canadian Arthur Ellis and the American Anthony, Barry, Dilys, Nero and Macavity Awards. She's the only writer in history to win the prestigious Agatha Award for Best Crime Novel in the United States four years in a row. Her first two books have just been optioned for film. Her ninth Gamache book, How The Light Gets In, will be published on August 27, 2013. Louise lives with her husband Michael and their Golden Retrievers in the Eastern Townships, just south of Montreal. 

Listen to Louise Penny's extended interview with Canada Writes

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