Ottawa International Writers Festival: It’s adults only in Louise Penny’s Gamache mysteries

Louise Penny's next book, Glass Houses, will be out in August. Photo: Jean-François Bérubé

In town: Louise Penny is at Southminster United Church, Friday, June 16 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information,

After 12 massively successful mysteries featuring Commander Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, Louise Penny has no plans to break up with her hero. In fact, No. 13, Glass Houses, will be released in August. Nor is she planning, as some mystery writers do, to write a standalone novel or start a spinoff series.

“I have no need. Every book I find something different to write about. They are about Gamache but they are also about so much else. He is the excuse, as is the murder, to look at human nature. It gives me all that I need.”

Her hero is a thoughtful, avuncular person, going about his life in the fictional village of Three Pines hidden in the hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. (Penny lives in the real town of Cowansville). Even though it’s not on a map, more crime takes place in and around Three Pines than occurs on the average street corner in any city you can think of but therein lies the tale.

Gamache is also no cardboard cutout detective. He is, Penny says, a mentor and “a father figure to every one of his protégés.”

Gamache didn’t have a father or a mother. Readers find out in her latest, and best so far, novel A Great Reckoning (Minotaur Books) that his parents were killed when he was a child.

“And so he understands the power of that sort of figure. He’s also an adult. I like that about him. You look a some certain amount of detective fiction and you are looking at manchilds (or womanchilds). I’m in awe of their success, but I’m not interested in reading that and I’m certainly not interested in hanging around that.

“I have to hang around these characters for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be around the Donald Trump of literary fiction … someone who flies off the handle and rips into everybody. There is a lot of that around, ranters and and bullies. … I am just not interested in that.

“It’s far easier to be unkind to someone than it is to stand up to the bully. That’s a difficult thing to do to stand up and say that’s wrong and risk the censure that comes; the verbal, emotional and even physical attack and the marginalizing that comes when you do something unpopular.”

Gamache isn’t afraid of doing the unpopular thing and Penny also likes that too about her leading man.

“Many of the people in the books are adults. I choose my own friends wisely and for the most part I like to be around thoughtful, mature people.” That’s not an age thing, she says, she knows that a person can be thoughtful and mature in his or her 20s.

But, “I look back on my writing and reading and the people who were heroes to me, they were all older. That’s why Gamache,  Reine Marie (his wife) and Myrna (a friend) are maternal and paternal figures and very calm. That’s something I have probably yearned for most of my life.”

Penny says she came from a not very close family. The five people in this classic 1950s WASP family never fought but “we were five individuals. I can’t remember a single holiday we took together. I can’t remember my parents playing with me. They might have, I just can’t remember.”

In A Great Reckoning, Penny delves into the yearning to belong, the power of friendship and the sense of community.

“That’s something that I have looked for all my life and finally found here in Quebec. So I don’t think I could have written about it without having experienced it. If you’ve had it all your life you don’t understand.”

This may offer a clue as to why the books are popular, she says. They speak to a common understanding.

“People recognize these characters. They are not swinging from the rafters and shooting off guns. They live quiet lives that occasionally go off the rails.”

Many of her books, including the latest, also examine corruption in its many forms. Gamache certainly seems to spend  lot of effort rooting it out of the SQ.

For Penny, this is about “how people themselves are corrupt inside. There is a corruption of emotions. They start off as normal and legitimate and then are corrupted. As a result, people’s lives change and are devastated.”

The threads of corruption make for some intricate plot lines. So how does she keep it all straight?

“It doesn’t happen in the first draft. The first draft would be unrecognizable as a book. It’s just a pile of plots and narratives and themes and characters. … I am in awe of people who can write a first draft and say that’s it and it actually is good.

“I only know what book will be about when I finish that first draft. Then I take out stuff  that doesn’t adhere to that. … It is about clarification. It is about simplicity. I write at least four drafts for each book. … By the time I let my editors see it, I feel that it is as good as I can do.”

That does’t mean she likes reading her own work.

“I’m not very good at it. I’m not bad if it is all narrative, but I can’t do characters. They all sound like me so I have to find a section of the book that is all narrative.”

And she finds that when she is reading her work out loud she is thinking, “‘Oh that doesn’t flow.’ I hear the stuff nobody else does and become hypercritical. I try not to beat myself up and I try not to feel like a fraud.”

Something that informs her writing is poetry. There are always lines quoted in her books and one of her characters is a cranky old poet with an angry pet duck named Ruth Zardo.

It’s not her poetry however.

“I’m actually taking golf lessons and there is something similar between my golf game and my poetry they are both s**t.”

The poetry is borrowed. On the permissions pages of her novels are the citations. In A Great Reckoning there is mention of Margaret Atwood and Penny’s favourite poet W.H. Auden. Another one she often draws from is a little-known poet named Marylyn Plessner whose poems are contained in the book Vapour Trails, published after her death.

“She only wrote one book and it was published by a friend of hers after she died. He gave it to me. It was a very limited edition and I started reading it and I just loved it. I use it for Ruth’s poetry.”

For Penny, good poetry synthesizes and renders emotions down into two or three sentences.

“When emerging writers ask me for advice and often when they don’t I tell them to read poetry. I don’t care if it’s A.A. Milne or a greeting card, Margaret Atwood or Jonathan Swift (whose verse is also in A Great Reckoning).”

An example of a kind of densely packed line of poetry she likes is prompted by a mention of W.B. Yeats.

“Have you read Auden’s elegy (In Memory of W.B. Yeats)? One of the lines is ‘Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.’ Isn’t that amazing. In six words you have everything you need to know about Ireland, Yeats and about poetry. As a novelist that’s what you try to do too.

“I really hope that I get better with the whole craft of writing. I tried to write every decade of my life but I didn’t start until I was in my 40s. It goes back a bit to the poetry. I really didn’t have much to say. I think that is why Auden’s point about Yeats affected me. I had to be hurt into writing. I had to feel enough emotions and experience them, not simply as a voyeur but actually go through them myself, to be able to write about them with honesty.”

And in the past few years she has felt a lot of emotions centred on the dementia and death of her partner Michael Whitehead.

“Michael taught me so many things including how to live in the moment.”

After he died, people wrote her to say they had gone through the same situation.

“So many wrote to offer condolences and they weren’t trivial comments. It was fantastic.”

It helped that she knew she wasn’t alone because that is “one of the things with dementia. … Now it’s about trying to figure out life without him and figuring out the balance between grief and wallowing.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.