How Louise Penny keeps her Armand Gamache mystery series fresh and surprising

The award-winning author discusses the latest installment of her series, Glass Houses.
Glass Houses is the 13th book in Louise Penny's bestselling Armand Gamache crime series. (Raincoast Books)
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Thirteen years ago, Louise Penny was a CBC broadcaster and journalist.  Now, she's an award-winning author who has sold more than 4 million books and has won armloads of prizes, thanks to her Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries. The latest installment — the 13th book in the series — is called Glass Houses and tells the story of a mysterious figure that arrives in town and stands immobile, staring ahead. When the figure finally leaves, a body is found. It is up to Gamache to figure out what is going on — before it's too late.

Writing with experience

"I don't think I could have written this book 13 years ago. In Glass Houses, Inspector Armand Gamache is being challenged by not knowing the right thing to do. I find these moral dilemmas fascinating. Gamache is trying to figure out whether he should lie on the stand for the greater good. I don't know what the answer is. It's important in my life and the life of the characters to continue asking, 'What's my motivation?' Gamache is able to figure out what his motivation is, even though he may still do it. That's what I found interesting about this. I can now explore the contradictory idea of a conscience and the role that goodness and kindness plays."

Uncomfortable reminders

"Years before I started writing, we had a visit from a friend who told us about the cobrador — a Spanish phenomenon. This dapper figure, dressed in very formal costume with a top hat and a briefcase, will stand outside someone's home. When the person leaves to got to work, he will follow them at a respectful distance, never approaching the person. They will stand outside just staring. Everybody in the community knows what a cobrador is — the cobrador is a debt collector. The idea is that a person has an debt that has gone on so long and is so bad, that a cobrador had to be hired to shame a person into paying. I made this need for an external conscience my own. In Glass Houses, the characters figure out that the debt this thing has come to collect isn't monetary but a moral debt."

Gamache's next dilemma 

"The next book is called Kingdom of the Blind. It's about blindness, but not physical blindness. It's about all the ways in which we are blind. The things we turn a blind eye to and our blind spots — it explores all of that in Gamache and others.

"I now write not because I have to, but because I want to. In many ways, I rediscovered a love for the villagers and characters. I feel closer to Armand Gamache now than I ever had."

Louise Penny's comments have been edited and condensed.