Author Spotlight: Louise Penny

Louise Penny

Sometimes your first effort just doesn’t work.

That’s what Louise Penny learned as she spent nearly a decade trying to write her first novel – a historical fiction title. After leaving an 18-year career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1996, she set off to write the perfect novel. Five years later, she was “watching a lot of Oprah and eating a lot of gummy bears,” she told Quill & Quire in 2007.

Around that time, she saw the stack of mystery novels sitting by her bedside. A realization came to her: she wanted to write mystery novels, not historical fiction. “I relaxed when I realized I wanted to write a mystery,” she said, “because it’s a structure I understand, and it allows me to explore everything I need.”

Kingdom of the Blind

Penny’s loving husband, Michael, provided the inspiration for her main character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Her vision started coming together. “I went down to the kitchen and drew a map of Three Pines,” Penny told The New York Times earlier this year. “I wanted to write books that my 8-year-old self would read. I created a village where I would live, populated with characters I would befriend and a main character I would marry.”

So the Gamache series began: first with Still Life in 2005, and now, 14 books later, with Kingdom of the Blind, which was released yesterday. The series has become a New York Times bestseller several times over. Penny has won seven Agatha Awards for the series, one of the highest honors in mystery writing, and has been nominated four other times. Kingdom of the Blind was one of the library’s most requested new titles this month.

Still Life

So what do you need to know about the Inspector Gamache series? First, the novels are set in Three Pines, a fictional location in the province of Quebec. They are of the “cozy mystery” subgenre, where sex and violence are downplayed, and the crimes generally take place in a small, intimate setting. The Canadian backdrop allows for various settings – the cold, snowy Canadian winter, the gorgeous, green, woodsy Canadian summer, and everything in between. Penny herself lives in Quebec, so she's very familiar with the setting that she's writing about.

When asked whether readers should read her books in order, Penny says:

Well, it's not essential. Each book is written to be self-standing, and most newcomers to the series have no difficulty picking up on issues that are explored in more depth in past books. Indeed, it's vital to me that readers know the characters have pasts, and the particular book they're reading is part of a continuum - a glimpse at their lives at that moment. If anything from the past is important, I'll explain it. Otherwise, some issues are alluded to, but only as a means of showing the characters have lives.

Having said that, there is a strong, and growing, character development arc throughout the books. I think of the books as having two streams - one is the plot - the crime. The other is the personal life of the characters. The first will, for the most part, be contained in a single book. The character development, though, gets deeper and deeper across the series.

The short answer? It's not necessary to read previous books - but it is recommended.

Bury Your Dead

We have Penny's entire collection on our shelves. They're available in several formats, inlcuding books, audiobooks, ebooks, eaudiobooks, and large print. These mysteries are the perfect books to cozy up with on a cold, winter day.

Louise Penny books:
Still Life
A Fatal Grace
The Cruelest Month*
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling*
Bury Your Dead*
A Trick of the Light**
The Beautiful Mystery*
How the Light Gets In**
The Long Way Home**
The Nature of the Beast**
A Great Reckoning*
Glass Houses*
The Kingdom of the Blind

*Agatha Award winner
**Agatha Award nominee

References:
"Louise Penny's Second Chance," Quill & Quire, November 2007.
"An Affable Canadian Author with a Penchant for Murder," The New York Times, May 25, 2018.
"Frequently Asked Questions," http://www.louisepenny.com/faqs.htm.