In her 2006 debut crime novel from Minotaur, Still Life, Louise Penny's acknowledgments pluck at the heartstrings: "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. I know that the real blessing here isn't that I have had a book published, but that I have so many people to thank."
That passage presages what was to come. All of Penny's critically acclaimed books featuring Canadian Chief Insp. Armand Gamache are permeated by the idea that connecting emotionally with other people is vital to human existence (as well as to the successful detection of crime).
The sixth in the series, Bury Your Dead (Minotaur), should increase her growing audience (the last, 2009's The Brutal Telling, made the New York Times bestseller list). Pre-pub, Bury Your Dead has collected a slew of starred reviews.
Penny's clear-eyed optimism about human nature, arrived at after working through some dark periods in her own life, helps to transform her intricately plotted fair-play whodunits from clever puzzles replete with gorgeous, often witty prose ("The Morrows could be counted on to choose the right fork and the wrong word") and fully psychologically realized characters, into sophisticated literature, eliciting praise not typically lavished on whodunits.
Penny believes that her good fortune, both professionally, from journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to bestselling author, and personally, was not the product of chance but of "fate, aided by a lot of hard work. I think of God's will as a cooktop," she says, "with a number of burners. My job is to make sure that there are things on the elements, and then let God decide what will boil."
Her husband, Michael Whitehead, is clearly part of her good fortune. A retired pediatric hematologist, he is the inspiration for Gamache, one of the most beloved and well-rounded modern fictional sleuths. Even a few minutes in Penny and Whitehead's company make plain how much in love they are, and it's obvious that the depth and maturity of their feelings is the source for Gamache's bedrock relationship with his own wife, Reine-Marie.
It took Penny some time to realize who Gamache really was. "I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, having birthed this character out of thin air—until one day, over breakfast, listening to Michael, I realized, my God, he's Gamache." Whitehead's work, which involved telling parents "things no parent should ever have to hear," did not change him from being "the most joyous man," Penny says. Whitehead's positive traits are Gamache's as well; the chief inspector is content and happy despite knowing perfectly well how cruel the world can be.
Her husband's contributions to the series go beyond giving Penny an emotional and spiritual template for its lead. The intricate murder method used in her second book, A Fatal Grace (Minotaur, 2007), an electrocution on ice at a curling match, was suggested by Whitehead, although he left it to Penny to figure out the details of how it could really work.
In addition to Gamache, Penny has populated her fictional world with a broad cast of people so well conceived and portrayed that many of her fans wish they could hang out with the locals in Three Pines, Quebec, the small fictional town where many of the books have been set.
But Penny does not treat the residents of Three Pines as amusing, quirky eccentrics who add color to the plot. In The Brutal Telling, a central member of the Three Pines community, bistro owner Olivier Brule, becomes the prime suspect in the bludgeoning murder of a recluse, a turn of events that rocks the town to its foundations. It was important for Penny to "show that the residents of Three Pines know sorrow and loss," which allowed her to show the "deep intimacy they've developed for each other."
At a time of economic and political anxiety, it's easy to understand the appeal of Penny's work, with its spirit of hope and resilience despite adversity. Gamache is a pillar of strength in tough times, and Three Pines a simpler, quieter community where people touch each other's lives positively. Penny has made the world brighter and less lonely for her readers—as well as for herself. n
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.