Author brings detective out of retirement

Louise Penny
Louise Penny Courtesy photo

Louise Penny’s latest Chief Inspector Gamache novel “A Great Reckoning” (Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $28.99), the 12th in the series, finds Armand Gamache taking charge of the Quebec police training academy. Because they need a man of character and integrity to root out corruption, Gamache is the logical choice. But it’s no easy task: the corruption runs deep in the academy, and Gamache left one of the worst perpetrators in place – on purpose, to keep him close – which may bring more trouble than Gamache had anticipated. And of course there’s a murder, which brings back Isabelle Lacoste and the Surete inspectors.

Gamache’s new position marks his return from (early) retirement after two books as an outsider to the Surete, and he hints that he may be returning to investigation. Penny said in a recent interview that she thinks the books work better with him employed.

“I did toy with the idea of keeping him retired,” she said, “but it just seemed then that it would be so much work to get him involved in every case, and it just didn’t seem appropriate. I didn’t want to take him too far away, like volunteering for the UN.”

Not to mention that volunteering for the UN would take Gamache away from Three Pines, the fictional, almost magical Quebec village that is itself a character in the series, as well as its denizens, whom readers have come to know and love. The residents of Three Pines may not always play a key role in the stories but they’re there, offering friendship (or insults, in Ruth’s case), insight and warm croissants.

“I really didn’t think the first book would be published,” Penny said, “so I created characters I would enjoy.”

The supporting characters aren’t just background: in previous books, one was convicted of murder and one was killed. Penny said that even though she loves the characters and enjoys writing them, she tries to “find that balance between having characters grow and evolve, but keeping enough that is predictable and recognizable, and at the same time making sure it doesn’t fall into a rut.”

In terms of killing off one of the recurring characters, she said she didn’t know when she started that the person would die at the end. “I try to leave a certain amount open. I know essentially what the plot line is, but I try to leave some of the other things amorphous.” At the start, she said, she “entertained all the possibilities,” then suddenly, it seemed the character just had to die.

“It’s important that people reading know that, while I will be respectful of readers and characters and the time they put in, bad things happen to people,” Penny said. “There are emotional impacts when someone dies or something happens to people.”

Some of those emotional impacts, and other story arcs, run over the course of several books. Penny said she works within a certain amount of structure to keep storylines cohesive and coherent, but not so much that there’s no place for inspiration. But she also lays plenty of groundwork: “I plant seeds – a character or reference – that I may or may not pick up, but I will know when the time comes to use it,” she said. “It gives me a lot of leeway; it allows me to pick and choose where I want characters to go.”

And Penny does pick up the threads: Each book usually has several seemingly unrelated storylines that finally converge at the end. One of the things so interesting about the series is that there’s always something connected to Canadian history or culture that plays a role in the story, for instance, a World War I-era map in the current novel and its connection to Canadians who fought in the war.

Penny said that some of the historical references stem from her time as a journalist, some from a love of history, and some from annoyance with how she was taught history: “all U.S. and British, no Canadian, as if Canada didn’t exist separately. There are so many interesting people in Canada – heroic, eccentric – and that should be celebrated, but it was dismissed as a lesser history.”

So now, she said, “it’s fun for me to be able to bring forth some history. I realized by about Book five what a richness I have to call on that is Canadian culture and history.”

Fans of the series may know that the first book, “Still Life,” was made into a TV movie in 2013 by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (it’s available, though not necessarily advisable, to stream through Amazon), which Penny said involved “a lot of very tense, unpleasant conversations.”

“But I learned a lot,” she said, especially how important it was to protect her characters: “I owe these characters a lot.” In many ways, she said, she’s glad to have been through it, because she knows a lot more in case it ever happens again.

What is certainly happening again is another Three Pines novel. But, Penny said with a laugh, “no hints!”

Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at

Louise Penny reading and book-signing

Who: Louise Penny, author of the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series

What: Reading and book-signing

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31

Where: Abode Venue, 1330 E. Douglas

How much: Tickets are $33 for one person or $38 for two people; both options include one hardcover copy of Penny’s latest novel, “A Great Reckoning.”

Information: Call Watermark Books and Cafe, 316-682-1181.