Louise Penny, writer (born 1 July 1958 in Toronto, ON). Upon receiving her Bachelor of Applied Arts in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson Polytechnic in 1979, Louise Penny began a lengthy career as a radio host and journalist (see Journalism) with the CBC. Through her work she honed her public speaking skills and the ability to relate to others, skills that would later serve her well as an author. In 2004 Penny met her future husband, Dr. Michael Whitehead, then Chief of Hematology at Montreal Children's Hospital. He encouraged her to abandon her broadcasting career and write the novel she had always promised herself she would write. Penny's mother had introduced her daughter to such classic crime writers (see Popular Literature) as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and George Simenon. After a false start in which she attempted to write the novel she thought others expected of her, Penny refocused her efforts and produced a story that she submitted for the British-based Crime Writers Association for their Debut Dagger Award. It placed second in a field of 800 entries. Picked up by a British literary agent and published as Still Life (2006), her debut novel featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sureté (see Quebec Provincial Police) became an instant hit with readers around the world.
A partial listing of Penny's many literary honours include a New Blood Dagger for Best First Novel; two Arthur Ellis awards; three Anthony awards; Barry, Macavity, Nero, and Dilys awards; and an unprecedented four consecutive Agatha awards for best novel, in addition to a nomination for a fifth. Her books have made the New York Times Bestseller Lists repeatedly, and her Gamache novels have been published in 23 languages.
Penny has been unwavering in her support for other writers. In addition to giving talks and providing advice on her own website she allocates part of her time to read manuscripts from aspiring writers, and together with her husband established the Crime Writers of Canada's Unhanged Arthur Award for the best unpublished novel.
The widespread appeal of Penny's Gamache series can be traced to several aspects of her books, not least their setting. Rooted in the scenic Eastern Townships of Quebec with their rich historical background, her novels spectacularly put to rest the publishers' canard that stories set in rural Canada will not appeal to readers. Second, Penny's tales are character-driven. The author swims against the literary tide, eschewing a tragically flawed protagonist with a history of troubled relationships. Instead, Armand Gamache is everyone's favourite uncle, or perhaps grandfather, in a loving relationship with his wife, Reine-Marie, and is genuinely caring about the members of his team. Third, atmosphere plays an essential role in her tales. The mouth-watering descriptions of sumptuous meals enjoyed by a panoply of engaging and eccentric characters provide readers with an enchanting world in which to spend a few enjoyable hours. Finally, there is a noticeable absence of gratuitous or graphic violence in Penny's stories. Reflecting Penny's own fascination with the classic Agatha Christie tales, the Gamache novels focus on a puzzle, the solution of which will only be revealed at the very end. Despite the necessity of building her stories around the act of murder, the violence is very much off-stage, her tales reflecting the literature of a gentler, more civilised age.
That said, Louise Penny shows increasing assurance as she matures as a writer. Her recent books have more gravitas or substance as she roots her stories in actual historical events. Readers of her later works also have been treated to more nuanced characterisations that flesh out her main characters and more subtle, layered plotting that heightens suspense. These changes will further increase her already-strong appeal among fans of the traditional crime novel.