Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s second chance

How a troubled past gives her mystery novels an edge

By Joel Yanofsky

Every morning, Louise Penny counts her blessings. There was a time when she felt she had none to count, but now, it’s a morning routine – and most mornings, it takes a while.

Penny is happily married, lives in Sutton, a bucolic village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and is doing what she always wanted to – writing novels. Her third mystery, The Cruellest Month, a tale of jealousy, murder, and redemption, has just been published in the U.K. by Hodder Headline. (Here in Canada, her books are distributed by McArthur & Company.) Her first two mysteries, Still Life and Dead Cold, are consistent sellers. Marian Misters, co-owner of the Toronto mystery bookstore The Sleuth of Baker Street, says the key to Penny’s success isn’t hard to figure out: “Good writing is good writing. And Louise is a good writer.”

Penny has her eye on the American market, too. She’s already made her mark there – earlier this year, Still Life won the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s Dilys Award, which goes to the book that members most enjoyed selling – and the long-term plan is to have her follow in the bestselling footsteps of crossover crime writers like fellow Quebecker Kathy Reichs. The Cruellest Month is due out in the U.S. in March, and Penny’s signed a new contract with her American publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for three further mysteries. Last August, Penny was in New York, strategizing with her publisher. According to her St. Martin’s editor, Hope Dellon, opportunity is knocking: “Everyone in the world should be reading Louise’s books.”

Life wasn’t always this blessed, which may be why the 49-year-old Penny sometimes looks as though she’s trying to refrain from pinching herself. “It’s ego and fear,” she tells me. “They always seem to be doing battle inside my brain.”

In 1996, she walked away from an 18-year career as a CBC journalist and radio host, convinced she was going “to write the best book ever.” Five years later, she had nothing to show for her time. Instead, she was watching a lot of Oprah and eating a lot of gummy bears. “It was devastating,” Penny confides. “I left my job, my husband was supporting me, financially and emotionally, and I was lying to everyone, even my husband. He’d ask how the writing was going when he came home and I’d say, ‘fine.’ Of course, if he just touched the television set, he would have noticed it was warm. I began to think maybe it’s better to let your dreams remain a fantasy – why test them, because then you lose everything. I felt I’d tested mine and I was found wanting.”

But Penny’s breakthrough came when she decided to give up on the historical novel she was working on – or not working on – and write traditional mysteries. They were the kind of books – by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers – she loved reading, the ones piled up on her bedside table. “I relaxed when I realized I wanted to write a mystery,” she says, “because it’s a structure I understand, and it allows me to explore everything I need.”

Penny made another crucial decision – to finish something, anything. “I’d made a contract with myself as a child, and that was just ‘write a book,’” Penny says. “Getting published wasn’t even part of the deal.” So the way she sees it – in fact, the way Penny sees most things these days – she’s ahead of the game. Way ahead.

***

We’ve just finished lunch in Penny’s kitchen in Sutton, and she’s serving maple syrup pie, which is sweet enough to qualify as poison. She lives deep in the countryside, in a United Empire Loyalist brick cottage, which manages to be both homey and impressive, traits it has in common with Penny. She is a gracious, convivial host. Imagine Martha Stewart, only a lot nicer.

Everyone you speak to about Penny will eventually get around to that – how nice she is. On her website, she includes practical tips on overcoming writer’s block and inspirational tips on believing in yourself, on persevering. She also offers to read unpublished manuscripts, probably because she remembers how close she came to giving up on her own. “I genuinely felt my first book, Still Life, was good, so it was a surprise when every publisher and agent kept saying no. It wore me down. I started thinking they must be right. I must be delusional. I was a breath away from putting it in a drawer,” she says.

Then, as a kind of last chance, she entered the Debut Dagger, a British-based contest designed to discover unpublished writers. She finished second out of 800 entries and immediately landed a British agent; the book was published in 2005. From there, Penny didn’t look back: she’s now completed her fourth mystery and is “scheming book five.”

Her experience with the Debut Dagger inspired her to create a similar opportunity for aspiring authors in this country. Last summer, with the support of the Crime Writers of Canada and a $1,000 cash prize donated by McArthur & Company, Penny helped launch the first Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Novel. Penny also served on the prize jury, with Marian Misters and Canadian mystery writer Maureen Jennings. They dutifully read 96 manuscripts. “Mystery writers genuinely help each other. It’s almost counter-intuitive,” Penny says. “You’d think we’d be much more likely to stab each other in the back.”

Of course, all this indisputable evidence of Penny’s niceness is enough to make anyone who’s been reading her novels, as I have, suspicious. In Penny’s mysteries, nothing is quite what it seems: not the setting of Three Pines, Quebec, a fictionalized, idyllic, and ultimately perilous version of the Townships; not her sleuth, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, a connoisseur of food, poetry, and homicidal behaviour; not the recurring cast of characters, a community of artists, poets, and eccentrics whose joie de vivre usually masks more sinister motives. It occurs to me that if Penny were a character in one of her novels, she’d be a prime suspect. Is she just being nice when she insists I take the leftover pie home to my family? Or is there something she isn’t telling me?

***

Writing mysteries is about keeping secrets, and Penny has had her share. The most unhappy people, she says, are those with the most suppressed rage – “the ones for whom there is the biggest gap between the public face and the private.” She herself is a prime example. From the ages of 21 to 35, Penny was an alcoholic. “I was very cynical, very bitter; the sort of person who, when I joined the CBC, I hoped I wouldn’t have to work with,” she says now. “Well, I wasn’t just working with her. I was living with her. I was her. I try very hard now to be a decent human being, because I’d been an indecent one for a while and I know the difference.”

She also knew what it was like to be alone. Her acknowledgements in Still Life conclude with a poignant confession: “I went through a period in my life when I had no friends, when the phone never rang, when I thought I would die from loneliness,” Penny writes. “I know that the real blessing here isn’t that I have a book published, but that I have so many people to thank.”

Her husband, Michael Whitehead, is first and foremost on the list. Penny met Whitehead on a blind date at a time when both expected they’d always be alone. Whitehead’s wife had died only two years earlier. Penny had just stopped drinking and felt she was “fine on her own.” Now, the two are seldom apart. Whitehead, who recently retired as head of hematology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, encouraged Penny to write, and now Penny is returning the favour. Whitehead is working on a book about his medical career; they share an office and write at side-by-side desks.

Dellon, Penny’s New York editor, recalls reading the acknowledgements in Still Life and being hooked. “I got chills. I don’t usually read acknowledgements,” Dellon says. “But I thought, ‘There’s something extraordinary here, some quality of human understanding that’s special.’”

Penny is, indeed, more interested in the why in her mysteries than in whodunit or how. However, she still has a knack for killing off her characters with cold-blooded panache. So far, she’s dispatched one with an arrow through the heart (Still Life); another in an electrified lawn chair (Dead Cold); and her latest corpse, in The Cruellest Month, is frightened to death during a seance. The murders are fun and therapeutic to write, Penny admits. “Like origami with blood,” is how she describes it.

Agatha Christie is the writer with whom Penny is most often compared. More than one reviewer has referred to Gamache as a modern-day Hercule Poirot. Penny has also succeeded in making Three Pines – a quiet, quirky, Christie-like village – so appealing that readers tend to overlook its disproportionately high murder rate. People write her asking for directions. (The covers of her U.S. editions now bear the label “A Three Pines Mystery.”) “It’s what is typically called ‘a cozy,’” says McArthur & Company owner Kim McArthur. “You have this confined space, this small village, and you get to know the characters – and they are characters – and learn the layout of Three Pines. Each successive book is building on this foundation.” However, Marian Misters doesn’t think the cozy label quite fits. “Louise’s books are police procedurals with a very British flavour,” she says, “but they also have nasty murders and fascinating, complicated characters.”

Indeed, Penny is a darker writer than it appears at first glance – a darkness especially evident in The Cruellest Month. Penny insists the new novel’s theme is second chances, but it’s the trouble we can’t help getting ourselves into on the way to that second chance that she’s really preoccupied with. Penny writes her mysteries the way her hero, Gamache, solves them – by collecting emotions. “Murder was deeply human,” Gamache thinks in The Cruellest Month. “It wasn’t about what people did. No, it was about how they felt. Because that’s where it all started…. [you] found murderers by following the trail of rancid emotions.”

In Penny’s case, her struggle with alcoholism – a time when she contemplated suicide – continues to inform everything she writes. “My characters can’t feel anything I haven’t felt. I know about jealousy, bitterness, self-hatred, anger; I own all that.”

Penny, who finally realized she’d either have to join AA or end her life, has been sober now for as many years as she drank. She understands how lucky she is to have a second chance and perhaps serve as an example to others who want to give up on themselves. “The great blessing in my life is that I know that goodness exists. But I know, too, that the happiest people in the world have been through hell and come out the other end,” she says, a quiver of emotion, positive emotion, in her voice.

“If this third novel tanks and if that’s the end of my career, that’s okay,” Penny says. “Because I know it isn’t the end of the world. I know what the end of the world looks like.”