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Why Readers Love Quebec Crime Writer Louise Penny

The books in her bestselling Inspector Gamache series are—as one superfan puts it—“the coziest stories about murder you’ll ever encounter”

A portrait of crime writer Louise Penny leaning into the camera

(Photograph: Mikaël Theimer)

The rainbows popped up almost as soon as Quebec locked down. They were taped onto front doors and living room windows; they were hand-drawn on sidewalks and checkout-line Plexiglas. Most of the time, they arrived alongside the phrase ça va bien aller, which can translate to “it’s going to be okay” or (if you’re feeling casual) “we got this” or (if you’re being formal) “all will be well.” By late March 2020, even Premier François Legault was quoting the slogan in press conferences to soothe stressed-out Quebeckers—though he said reaching for a glass of wine could also help.

The rainbows took a bit to make their way to Knowlton, a tiny village closer to Vermont than to Montreal, in the Eastern Townships where crime writer Louise Penny has lived for the past 22 years. (And where lockdown had her running laps around her kitchen island to stave off boredom. “At least there are no hills,” Penny says.) But she was already familiar with the reassurance: “All shall be well” is part of a quote attributed to Julian of Norwich, the female British mystic who survived two waves of the Black Death in the 14th century.

The phrase is a particular favourite of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, fictional head of Quebec’s homicide division and profoundly decent hero of Penny’s long-running mystery series, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Ça va bien aller is something of a shorthand for his abiding faith in the goodness of people, despite the sky-high body count at Three Pines, the small fictional village where Gamache keeps a home and Penny sets her books.

The latest, The Madness of Crowds, tests that faith. In this 17th Gamache mystery, which comes out on August 24, a charismatic academic named Abigail Robinson shows up to Three Pines peddling a horrific proposal. Canada’s economy and health care system can fully recover from COVID’s ravages, she promises, but not everyone can be saved—certain sacrifices must be made. As her ideas gain alarming popularity across the country, a slogan appears on placards and buttons. You guessed it: Ça va bien aller. All will be well.

“I knew I wanted a phrase that speaks to Gamache’s optimism used in a dangerous, vile way,” Penny says. “I wanted that violation.” What she didn’t want, initially, was any mention of the still-ongoing pandemic—Penny had The Madness of Crowds planned out long before actual crowds became a real threat—but she changed her mind last fall, two-thirds of the way through her first draft. “I was writing about an idea as a virus, and I couldn’t ignore the parallel to the pandemic,” she says. “Then, to see Ça va bien aller with the rainbows, it all just fell into place.”

If a COVID-bruised country considering offing some of its people doesn’t exactly sound like cozy mystery fare, you might not be familiar with Penny’s work. Yes, there are quirky characters and bucolic settings and mountains—truly mountains—of croissants and lemon meringue pie and French onion soup. But her books have explored the opioid crisis, corporate malfeasance and widespread police corruption. There have been ambushes; there’s been PTSD. “Even though they are the coziest stories about murder you’ll ever encounter, and there’s always someone sitting by the fire with a hot ham sandwich, she’s not afraid to have really heavy stuff going on,” says Elizabeth Spiridakis Olson, a New York-based creative director and self-described Louise Penny pusher (16/16 books read). “But you know you can trust in Gamache, and the books are still hopeful.”

That tension between the heavy and the hopeful might be why so many people turn to Penny not just for escape but for solace, to help ease them through chemo or the death of a parent or the later stage of a global pandemic. She’s a good companion for difficult times. And her audience only gets larger each year: In 2020, her 16th Gamache mystery, All the Devils Are Here, instantly shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, then sold more copies in Canada, according to Booknet, than any other work of homegrown fiction that year. It’s not a surprise that so many people would seek out Penny’s company when the world has gone to hell. Her books make clear that she knows intimately what it is to endure pain, loss and grief. They also make clear she knows it’s possible to come out on the other side.

The cover of Louise Penny's 17th Inspector Gamache novel: The Madness of Crowds

The Madness of Crowds, the 17th book in Louise Penny’s wildly popular Inspector Gamache series, is out now.

Penny doesn’t seem like someone who’s sent dozens of people tumbling to their deaths. The 63-year-old is hugely affable, quick to joke, to self-deprecate, to swear a little, to charm a lot. “She’s such an open, touchy-feely person,” says her assistant Lise Page, a friend of Penny’s who has worked with her for nearly two decades. “She knows how to connect with people—it’s incredible to see.”

So it’s perhaps surprising that much of Penny’s life was first marked by an unbearable loneliness. She grew up in Toronto and Montreal afraid of basically everything: heights, the dark, other kids. On the rare occasions Penny misbehaved, her mother would punish her by sending her out to play. She landed a job with the CBC straight out of Ryerson University’s radio and television program, working first as a reporter, then an anchor for CBC Radio. She spent 18 years at the broadcaster. She spent 14 of those years as an alcoholic. “I was very closed off emotionally, physically, and I turned into this tiny little frightened thing,” Penny says. Alcohol stole her friends, her laughter, her self-respect. “I didn’t know how to live. I just got so lonely. And I knew that it was going to kill me, or I was going to kill myself.”

She recognized that if she was willing to die, she had to be willing to ask for help. In January 1994, at the age of 35, she went to her first A.A. meeting. “There was that moment of grace,” she says. “It’s why one of the ongoing themes of the books is to ask for help and it will be there.” A year later, Penny was set up on a blind date with Michael Whitehead, a director of hematology at a children’s hospital 25 years her senior. He was the nicest man she’d ever met; she says “a room only ever felt complete with Michael in it.”

It was Whitehead who convinced Penny to give up the CBC gig and chase her dream of writing a book. She even announced her plan live on the radio. And then: five solid years of writer’s block as she slogged away on a sweeping historical novel set in pre-Confederation Quebec. She didn’t understand it—there were, finally, no other distractions in her life. She wasn’t working. She wasn’t raising children. (“Michael loved me enough to try, and I loved him enough to stop trying,” she has said.) She was just afraid of screwing it up. “Why wouldn’t it be fear?” she says now. “When else in my life had I not experienced fear?”

Penny allowed herself to let go of her need for approval; she stopped worrying about what her mother thought, what her former colleagues thought, what perfect strangers might think. She also let go of the whole business of a historical epic and started writing what she enjoyed reading: crime fiction, like the kind written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. And she made her protagonist, Armand Gamache, the sort of honourable, sturdy, warmhearted man who she’d like to marry—who she did, in fact, marry. There is so much of Whitehead in Gamache, she says, “for me, it is impossible to separate the two.”

Once her debut, Still Life, was written, getting it out into the world was another slog: 50 publishers rejected or ignored her submission. Penny says she had essentially given up; she sent it off to a British crime-writing contest as a bit of a Hail Mary. But then she came second in the contest. And then she landed an agent. And then that agent landed her a three-book deal, with the next manuscript due just 10 months later.

Very quickly, Penny’s career hit the stratosphere. Since 2005, when Still Life was published, she has produced a new Gamache book every year. (How? By sticking to a very strict writing schedule and recognizing that the first draft will be “a dog’s breakfast, generally,” she says.) Between them, the books have won a whackload of awards, been translated into 29 languages, and routinely top best-sellers lists. There’s a Three Pines walking tour. There’s a television series for Amazon in the works, from the producers of The Crown. She was inducted into the Order of Canada.

But sorrow wasn’t quite done with Penny: In 2014, Whitehead was diagnosed with dementia. She saw pieces of him begin to fall away. “I think I lived in a certain denial: I understood rationally what was going on, but getting the heart to accept it was a whole other thing,” she says. Penny moved them out of their lovely home in the middle of nowhere to a one-level condo in Knowlton; she’d cry in the bathroom, tired of making decisions and tired of being brave. She became Whitehead’s main caregiver, but every morning, she still set her alarm for 5 a.m. and wrote till 10. Three Pines was her refuge. “The nice thing was it was a world that conformed to my position—there was no pushback from Armand,” she says with a laugh. “Yes, bad things happened there, but they still had this sense of community and they could absorb the blows.”

In that way, Penny resembled her readers, finding comfort in the community she’d created. “Whenever there is something I have been grieving or feel anxious for, I take a trip to Three Pines and the warmth of their love and friendship offers a haven,” says Azita Rassi, a Penny enthusiast (16/16 books read) and literary translator based in Malaysia. “Gamache is someone you wish you had in your life. A lot of the characters are like that.” The crimes, she adds, are secondary to the compassion of the novels—she’d just as happily stick with the series if Gamache became a carpenter or a puppeteer. “Reading the books is therapeutic.”

And it’s through Gamache that Whitehead, who died at home in September 2016, lives on. When Penny’s fans rhapsodize about her series, they mention the decadent descriptions of food and the swirling Quebec snowstorms and the satisfaction of a mystery solved, but they linger on Gamache. “Penny’s books are more about kindness and empathy and connecting than they are about these evil deeds, and Gamache is at the centre of that,” says Kerry Millar, a teacher and bookstagrammer in Toronto (11/16 books read: “I’m afraid I’ll catch up and there won’t be any more.”) Millar adds, “In spite of everything that Gamache has witnessed and been through, he definitely believes in the good of humanity.” The same could be said of Whitehead. It can be said of Penny, too.

***

After Whitehead passed away, a letter of condolence arrived from Hillary Clinton, then in the final leg of her 2016 presidential campaign. Penny was surprised to receive it—and even more surprised that it showed such familiarity with Whitehead’s life and work. “It wasn’t just, ‘Dear occupant, sorry for your loss, can I count on your vote?’” Penny says. “And Hillary Clinton’s letter shouldn’t mean any more than anyone else’s, but it did feel like the sun peeked out for a bit. It lifted the heart.”

The two struck up a friendship—on Facebook, Penny recently posted an old photo of them, mugging together in enormously floppy fuchsia hats—and last year figured they’d collaborate on a book as well. They wrote the political thriller State of Terror over the pandemic, and though Penny won’t reveal much before its October publication, she will say that it’s packed with “tiny details that are almost state secrets,” and was a chance for her to learn more about Clinton’s career in politics. “I try not to think of her as Secretary Clinton and him as President Clinton,” she says. “They’ve obviously got immense experience and stories—all right, yeah, peace in Ireland. But for the most part, they’re just Bill and Hillary. I’m a Canadian. I have nothing to offer them beyond friendship.”

It’s not an offer she makes lightly: Penny is careful with the company she keeps. “There are people who are more than happy to throw shade; I don’t need them in my life,” she says. She can supply ample self-criticism. She leans on her friends for positivity and support.

Again and again, Penny returns in conversation to the importance of optimism. The last time we speak, it’s early July and she’d just flown to London, where she has a flat. All travellers to England still had to quarantine for 10 days and test negative for COVID twice, but Penny wasn’t sure when she’d be sprung from isolation: Her COVID test was lost somewhere in the Royal Mail. She was back to jogging around a kitchen island. She’d ordered groceries; they’d arrived all smashed up. “Every now and then, life is just a clusterf-ck,” she says, laughing. “So I’m running laps and all I can think of is: Everything will be okay. Right? All shall be well.”

Okay, but hold on, Louise: how? How shall it be? And how can she hang on to that belief, given everything happening right now in the world and everything that’s happened in her own life? “It’s just faith,” says Penny, who isn’t religious but has what she describes as a deep and private belief. She considers my questions a little longer. Maybe she can sense my skepticism across the Zoom connection; maybe she can see that, 16 months deep into a global pandemic and holding fast at “languishing,” I’m looking for a little advice.

“It depends on what you think of as ‘well,’” Penny says. Is it a bank account stacked with millions? One of Jeff Bezos’ lesser yachts? Then, no, very likely, all shall not be well. Instead, Penny learned to calibrate her desires. She remembers thinking, “I hope Michael doesn’t have dementia,” and then, “I hope he can still talk,” and then, “I hope he can walk.” She remembers when those hopes no longer worked. “So then it’s: I hope he’s not in pain. And, yeah, that’s working,” she says. “I hope this can be peaceful. That’s working. I hope he knows he’s loved.” She pauses. “Hope shifts. And if you can have a fluid sense of ‘well,” then all really will be well.” Her smile is enormous—it’s contagious. “I mean, how wonderful is that?”

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