Louise Penny, best-selling Canadian novelist and creator of the detective Armand Gamache, was sure as far back as 2005, when she published her award-winning debut Still Life, that she wouldn’t be able to go on writing if her husband Michael Whitehead died. Not only was he the inspiration for her wise, kind, clear-sighted detective, but he was also the reason she found the courage to write in the first place.
Whitehead was diagnosed with dementia in 2013, and Penny became his caregiver. After he died in September 2016, she felt that was probably it for her career as a novelist. She was wrong.
Kingdom of the Blind, the 14th Gamache novel, was published in 2018. Then in 2021 came State of Terror, co-authored with an unexpected new friend Penny only met after Whitehead’s death: Hillary Clinton. Penny’s thrillers, which combine chilling insights into the very worst of crimes with the humanity of her protagonist Gamache, remain as uniquely nail-biting and heartwarming as ever, and the author only looks set to pick up more readers now Amazon Prime has launched its much-anticipated adaptation of her books, Three Pines, starring Alfred Molina as the charismatic detective.
They made the British prime minister an upper-class twit with no guts – just ‘entitlement and random Latin phrases’
Back in 2016, though, this wasn’t the future Penny would have predicted. “I thought I would just be too sad to write after Michael died, because my Gamache would have died. But even as he was dying, I found that writing became my haven,” Penny says.
“I’d get up really early, look after him, and then make a cup of coffee and go into a world I could control, be surrounded by these characters who were comforting, who were friends, who were kind. And there was Gamache, too – in him, Michael is healthy and immortal.”
The two met in 1994 when Penny, then a broadcaster with the CBC in Montreal, was 36 years old, and Whitehead, head of haematology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, was 60. Penny had begun as a radio reporter for the CBC, moving regularly as she was promoted up the ladder – to Winnipeg, Quebec City and Montreal. “I’d never really put down roots, but as I got older, I just got this longing to belong. I know what it’s like to feel as if you’re going to die from loneliness.”
For about a decade, in her 30s, she drank too much. “You know I’m a recovering alcoholic?” she says conversationally, as we sit in a pub in London (she is drinking water). “My sponsor used to say, at what stage does the cucumber become a pickle? When did I go from being a social drinker to becoming an alcoholic? But there is no going back from being a pickle to a cucumber.”
She tried to quit on her own, but it was a 12-step recovery programme that made the difference. “I went to a grungy church basement with a bunch of people who looked like hobos – it turned out so did I – and they saved my life and I haven’t had a drink since. That was 28 years ago,” she says. “Within months, I went from thinking I was going to kill myself to having hope.”
Hope is at the heart of the Gamache novels. Penny describes it as “that light in the eye, to have hope that you can turn a life around”. Within a year of getting sober she met Whitehead. Within two years, she was married. “I went from thinking life is over to being in love. If you ask for help, and you hold on, things can change.”
Burned out, she quit her job, after Whitehead said he would support her “to write the book he knew that I had always wanted to write”. But she “immediately suffered from five years of writer’s block”.
I came out of the womb afraid. I was afraid of failing. So instead of creating a book I was creating excuses
Penny had always wanted to be an author, but “I was a child who for some reason just came out of the womb afraid. I was afraid of failing, of testing the one thing I’d always wanted to do and coming up short. So instead of creating a book I was creating excuses.”
The two moved out of Montreal to Knowlton, a small village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where they found a community that welcomed them. Penny realised that she was trying to write a novel that would “impress my mother, or my former colleagues, or complete strangers”, and that what she really loved to read was crime fiction. “The approval of others has been a tyranny in my life, and I had to let that go at the age of 40, to say if you’re going to do what you always wanted to do, you have to not worry about what other people will think. Just write!”
She went “straight downstairs” and drew an image of the village that would become Gamache’s community of Three Pines, drawn from her hometown and packed with eccentric characters. Still Life, in which Gamache investigates the murder of local artist Jane Neal, was the result. But no agent wanted to represent her, no publisher wanted to publish her, until her manuscript was shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers’ Association’s debut Dagger award, and she came to London for the ceremony. There, she found an agent, and then a three-book deal.
Gamache has since solved crimes from fatal electrocutions to a death at a seance, and dealt with everything from serial killers to corruption in the police force, all the while filling up on delicious Quebecois food. His latest outing, A World of Curiosities, delves into the effects of childhood trauma on adults, when a boy Gamache rescued from horrific abuse years earlier reappears in his life. This is Penny’s 18th Gamache novel, but she shows no signs of tiring of her creation – a man who, as she writes, had “seen the worst that people could do” but who still believes in “the essential goodness of people”.
Still, she found time to slip in another creation alongside Gamache: Ellen Adams, the secretary of state who leads the action in State of Terror, the thriller she co-wrote with Clinton. Fast-paced, packed with delicious insider insight into high-level politics, it follows the fallout when bombs start going off in Europe.
Clinton and Penny met after a fortuitous interview in summer 2016 during the lead-up to the presidential elections. Betsy Ebeling, Clinton’s best friend, was asked by a journalist about what the two had in common. Reading, Ebeling said; they were both reading one of the Gamache novels at the time.
We connected – we were two women who were broken, and so we met at that level
Penny’s canny publicist introduced her author to Ebeling. They hit it off, and Ebeling invited Penny to Clinton’s election night party in the Javits Center in New York – not the most celebratory of occasions. Not long after, Penny was home. Whitehead had died of dementia, and she was opening letters of condolence. One was from Clinton whom she had yet to meet.
“She’d had a bruising political campaign for the biggest job in the world and she still took time to write a letter, describing Michael and his career as a doctor and a researcher, and what a loss and what a contribution he had made. To a woman she had never met, about a man she never met. I can’t even vote! It was an act of such kindness, and I was so deeply impressed.”
In 2017, Ebeling told Penny that Clinton wanted to invite her to her home in Chappaqua for a night. “It was terrifying,” says Penny. “But we connected – we were two women who were broken, and so we met at that level. She wanted nothing from me, and I wanted nothing from her except friendship, and that sealed the deal.”
It was during lockdown that the idea of writing a book together was pitched to the pair by their agents; Clinton’s husband Bill had already teamed up with writer James Patterson to co-author a thriller, but Penny and the former secretary of state were initially not convinced.
“Both Hillary and I had reservations. I didn’t know whether I could write with someone else. Her concern was that it would affect our friendship, but then we thought why not? Let’s just try it and see.”
They both worked on the synopsis. “We were tossing around ideas, Facetiming, but had nothing really exceptional. Then I finally asked her, what were your nightmares when you were secretary of state, and she came up with three that kept her up at night.”
We don’t want it to turn into a sausage factory, to do it for the money rather than because we have something to say
They chose one. “One of the reasons it worked so well was that we had different skills. I was the writer, she was the secretary of state. So I would write a couple of hundred pages, send it to her, she’d go through it and make suggestions, we’d talk on the phone, she’d make notes in longhand.”
Ebeling, who died of breast cancer in 2019, is movingly remembered in the book in the form of Betsy Jameson, Ellen’s close friend and colleague. There are also delicious pokes at real-world politics, such as the British prime minister described as “a hollow man, an upper-class twit, with any guts he might have had replaced by entitlement and random Latin phrases”. State of Terror is much more fun, and much more sweary, than you might anticipate.
The pair have been asked to write another thriller together, because the book performed so well and the screen rights have also been sold – but for now they’re not convinced. “We were just texting today, Hillary’s in Los Angeles and was going to meet the screenwriter and let me know how things go. But she’s incredibly busy and I’m busy so I don’t think we have time right now. Maybe when we’re 80.
“We did the first one because it was a blast, and because there were themes we wanted to explore. But we don’t want it to turn into a sausage factory, to do it for the money rather than because we have something to say. I think we both just want to catch our breaths and enjoy it for now.”
In the meantime there are plans for a new dog, probably a golden retriever. “Michael and I always had goldens. It was our wedding gift to each other, our first golden,” she says, looking back but also looking forwards – warm, open, ready for whatever’s next. – Guardian
A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Three Pines is on Amazon Prime Video