Watching the detective
Mystery writer Louise Penny talks about her much-loved fictional sleuth
"I must admit to a slight crush. It’s very weird!" Acclaimed Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny isn’t fanning herself over a mere mortal — she’s describing Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the charismatic Montreal detective she first introduced in her 2005 debut, Still Life.
She’s been smitten with Gamache ever since, charting the gifted, compassionate investigator’s adventures in six novels, while watching her books climb up the New York Times bestseller list and net three Agatha Awards in as many years. Her latest tome, Bury Your Dead, is so addictive, it is bound to induce swooning in critics and Gamache fans alike.
"I realized I really needed to create a main character I would marry," Penny says of her chief inspector on the phone from a tour stop in Calgary. "I want to spend the rest of my life with someone who knows that goodness is a quality that needs to be valued and who struggles to be good.
"It takes a lot more courage and a lot more character to be kind in the face of cruelty. He’s kind not because he’s too stupid to understand how cruel the world is — he’s kind because he knows how cruel the world is, and he knows what a necessary quality goodness is and kindness is."
Goodness is a word that pops up frequently in our conversation. Warm and unfailingly gracious — she keeps thanking me for my questions and observations — Penny gives the impression of someone both amazed by and grateful for her literary success.
On the dedication page of Bury Your Dead, Penny pays tribute "to second chances." When asked about it, she says, "I know what it is like to be in despair, and to just want to curl up and retreat. And also to be embittered and cynical and negative, and how that destroys us — destroyed me." After describing her own rebirth as a novelist, she adds: "I know that goodness exists. But it only exists because I’ve been through the dark."
These personal experiences inform Bury Your Dead, in which Penny’s normally unflappable detective becomes haunted by events from his past and attempts to come to grips with a world that is crueller than he ever imagined. He is still Gamache — using empathy to tease clues out of the most guarded suspects — but fans might be surprised to see he’s damaged, too. At the novel’s outset, he is holed up in old Quebec City, sporting a new scar and a trim beard and attempting to hide the trembling hands that hint at his fear and self-doubt.
"Gamache in Bury Your Dead is certainly tortured, but he’s struggling to get back to the light," Penny says. "He’s a man with equilibrium, through the rest of the series. Bad things happen and he feels them deeply, but he can get back to centre. And I wanted to show him not back to centre."
The event that triggers Gamache’s crisis of faith provides one of three seamlessly interwoven plotlines. In addition to charting a former investigation gone awry, Bury Your Dead shows Gamache’s faithful second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, tracking a murder case in the idyllic fictional village of Three Pines, while Gamache stumbles upon an inflammatory new crime when a body turns up at a quaint Anglo-run library known as the Literary and Historical Society. The fact that these stories play out against Winter Carnival and include references to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham testifies to the distinctly Canadian nature of the Gamache series.
"Emily Dickinson talked about novels being frigates, and that’s what I want," Penny says. "I want people, when they pick up any one of my books, to be picking up a ticket, and they get on the frigate, and they come to Canada, and specifically they come to Quebec. I want them to have the literary tourism of coming and visiting Quebec. And I want it to be sensual. So that they can feel what minus 20 in a blizzard feels like, they can taste the red wine when it’s howling outside. They see through the frosted, mullioned glass a fireplace inside and the comfort that promises."
Penny succeeds in capturing Quebec’s local colour in vivid detail, particularly in the charming, eccentric sections depicting the goings-on in her beloved fictional Three Pines setting. But Bury Your Dead is no mere cozy, and Penny hits pay dirt when she uses real Canadian history, including facts plucked from Samuel de Champlain’s biography, as fodder for the darker, more politically charged material that fuels the book’s gripping climax.
To say more about Bury Your Dead risks giving away some of its finest developments. One thing’s for certain: the book’s propulsive, masterfully plotted final third — complete with a few juicy twists — will solidify Penny’s reputation as the heir apparent to Agatha Christie.
But comparisons to the creator of Hercule Poirot fail to acknowledge Penny’s greatest strength — the psychological depth she brings to her novels. Whether she’s noting subtle shifts in Gamache and Beauvoir or showing compassion for one of Bury Your Dead’s more prickly characters, a Champlain-obsessed crank known as Augustin Renaud, Penny gets people, and it’s her insight that makes her murder plotlines so plausible and chilling.
"You don’t want the bad guys to be frothing at the mouth or be some psychotic, you want them to be the person you see in the mirror, who’s just, you know, something went wrong. And it could go wrong for any of us if we get that little shard that starts to fester over time. Who knows where that could lead?"
Louise Penny will appear at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 23.
Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.