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"I Don’t Actually Think About Murder": Louise Penny on the Chief Inspector Gamache Series

LouiseIn Louise Penny's latest Inspector Gamache novel, A Great Reckoning, a map found hidden in a bistro wall unleashes a deadly chain of events...Considering her years writing crime fiction, one would assume Ms. Penny harbors homicidal thoughts. But no! She's surprisingly hopeful, using her pen as a vehicle to preach kindness, especially when kindness is hard. Here, she explains, and also reveals the surprisingly poetic genesis of this beloved series.

With the twelfth book in the Gamache series about to come out, I'm sometimes asked how I can keep coming up with new ideas.  There is, sometimes, a slight inference that I might be a sociopath.  To have so many murderous thoughts. 

But the truth is, I don't actually think about murder.  And I don't actually think the books are about murder.  They're about loyalty and our yearning to belong.  They're about friendship and community and love, in all its forms. 

They're about our struggle to be decent.  And what happens when our world, our perceptions, our certainties, are shattered. 

Far from being ripped from gruesome headlines, my books start, as Robert Frost once wrote when describing his poems, as a lump in the throat.  An emotion so strongly felt, it can't be contained. 

In fact, all of my books have, at their core, not a crime but feeling.  And that feeling is often inspired by a particular poem, or turn of phrase.  Indeed, the entire Gamache series can be rendered down to two lines from W.H. Auden' Elegy to Melville: 

"Goodness existed, that was the new knowledge.  His terror had to blow itself quite out to let him see it."

My books are crime novels set in Quebec.  I write about terror, the outside terror that appears unexpectedly – but mostly the overwhelming, whispering terror that comes from the inside.  The fears of our own making.

But I also write about goodness.  And the courage it takes to be kind.  And the choices, often apparently trivial, we make everyday.  And where those choices lead us.   

Later in his poem, Auden writes four searing lines -

Evil is unspectacular and always human,

And shares our bed and eats at our own table,

And we are introduced to Goodness every day.

Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults.

Unspectacular Evil, and Goodness hiding among a crowd of faults.  How perfect is that?  What rich territory for a crime writer.  A murderer not frothing at the mouth, but always human.  And Goodness, easily overlooked.       

The Gamache books are about the duality in our lives.  The smiling face and the sinister thoughts.  The gap, sometimes a chasm, between what we say and what we're really thinking.  Between how we act, and how we feel.

I'm reminded of something Helen Prejean said.  Something I've had my characters quote more than once.  Sister Prejean works with convicts on Death Row.  She said, and I paraphrase:  No one is as bad as the worst thing they've done. 

But the opposite must also be true.  No one is as good as the best thing they've done. 

And therein lies a story. 


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