Louise Penny began her writing career later than most successful writers. Her first book, 2005’s “Still Life,” was published when she was nearing 50. Since then, though, she’s written 14 books and has earned critical appreciation, developed a large readership and won several mystery-writing awards.
Penny’s latest book, “Glass Houses,” is her first release since the death of her husband, Michael Whitehead, whom she credits as the inspiration for her famous detective, Armand Gamache. She’ll be in Houston on Thursday to read and discuss her book.
Q: Tell us about your latest novel, “Glass Houses.”
A: One of the challenges of writing a series, particularly one with this setting (a small village in Quebec) and the same cast of characters, is the danger of falling into a rut. And I do not want that, so I try to make each of the books different, either in tone, theme or structure. In this case, I changed the structure, and one of the things I haven’t done with my main character, Armand Gamache, is put him in the courtroom. It’s an inside-out story, where we start near the end when the trial is underway. But we do not know the identity of the victim or the defendant; nor do we know the motive. Thematically, the book is about conscience and the role that it plays in our lives. And that is where the character of the cobrador del frac comes in.
Q: The cobrador del frac is one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel. Tell us about this concept of the debt collector or, in this case, a moral debt collector.
By Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, 400 pp., $28.99
Louise Penny will discuss and sign “Glass Houses,” 7 p.m. Thursday, Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Ave. Tickets start at $8; $32 tickets include a copy of the book. Buy online at murderbooks.com.
A: I heard about the cobrador del frac about 20 years ago, long before I wrote this book. It’s typically a man who is quite dapper, dressed in a top hat, tails and (who) carries a briefcase. He follows a person from their home, to their work, on their errands, standing aside and never approaching them. Everyone knows who this person is – a debt collector. The person the cobrador is following has reneged on a debt, and the cobrador essentially shames the person into paying the debt, following them for weeks if need be. It is incredibly successful because it plays on the person’s conscience.
When I began writing this series, I knew I would use this character, but I wanted the time to be right and the characters’ development to be right. With this book, I knew it was time to bring the cobrador del frac in. The cobrador comes into collect a debt, but it’s a moral debt, not a monetary debt. He comes into this small village of Three Pines, and each of the characters thinks he is there for them because we all have done things of which we are ashamed.
Q: Your setting of Three Pines is particularly appealing to your readers. Tell us about Three Pines and how you created it.
A: I began writing this series shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and that had a profound effect on me. I felt vulnerable and unsafe, so I decided to create a setting where I would feel safe. It’s the village of Three Pines in Quebec. It’s set in a valley, off the beaten path, usually found by people who are lost. I created a bookstore, a bakery, a bistro and a general store, and I populated it with people I would want as friends. I wanted the book to be published, but I knew the reality of the publishing world. So I knew that writing it had to be reward enough because it might be my only reward. I had to love it, and the final touch was Armand Gamache.
Q: Tell us about Gamache.
A: I had heard stories of Agatha Christie growing weary of Hercule Poirot. I’m not sure those stories were true, but I knew I didn’t want to grow weary of my main character. So I thought long and hard about who it should be, and I thought, “I have to make him a man I would marry” because that’s pretty much the relationship I would have with him if the series was to continue. I gave him all the qualities I admire in a human being: He’s gentle; he’s thoughtful; he loves his wife; and he has a good relationship with his children and his colleagues. He has integrity. But he’s not someone who would be mistaken for a member of a SWAT team. If anything, he would be mistaken for a university professor.
Q: Earlier you mentioned that you approach each book differently to avoid “a rut.” Can you elaborate on your approach to writing, in which you use genre conventions without falling into clichés?
A: My books are clearly and proudly crime novels, but I think “crime fiction” is a marketing tool. I have no need to fall into a category. I think of my work as literary fiction. I think of them as whodunits, as courtroom dramas, as thrillers – they are all things. Just as I am multiple things: sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional. We are the full package, and I think literature should reflect that and not be ghettoized. I refuse to be.