Ask anyone who has tried it: creating a character that can remain convincing and convincing for an entire novel is difficult. Maintaining that achievement with the same character in the course of multiple novels is a totally higher order. But that is exactly what Louise Penny has done since 2005 with chief inspector Armand Gamache, head of the Sûreté du Québec and citizen of the fictional hamlet of Eastern Pillars or Three Pines. Kingdom of the Blind (Minotaur, 400 pages, $ 35.99) is the 14th Gamache novel and could even be the best.
Serial genre fiction writers have a fine line. For readers, fame is a big part of the attraction: they can safely buy the newest episode in the knowledge that they enter a world whose parameters are well defined. The trick is to take the familiar out of the corner.
"The danger of a series is to write the same book over and over again," said Penny, who fought heavy traffic to the city last weekend from her home in Knowlton for a Salon du Livre performance. "It is important to change it and see the growth in the characters, and that can only happen by placing them in different situations."
Kingdom of the Blind does exactly that, the storyline started two books ago with A Great Reckoning from 2016, set at a time when opioids from under the radar crossed social scourge to a complete epidemic.
& # 39; You did not have to be a scholar to see where it all went, & # 39; said Penny. "I wanted to explore it, I have background information about addiction and those issues (Penny is a recovering alcoholic), and I also wanted to have yin and yang: the idyllic Three Pines, and what happens in inner cities or anywhere else, when the opioids start to get in. How do you fight that with decency or with indecency? That's Gamache's struggle, because the traditional ways of policing have clearly not done what they have to do, and the consequences are so terrible. "
The wrestling of Gamache becomes all the more real for the reader because he, like the people around him, gets older in the books in more or less real time.
"He is not actually aging as fast as I am," said Penny, 60, with a laugh. "He started in the mid-fifties and he crawls upstairs, he is not as (physically) flexible as he was and he should not try to be, his dexterity comes from seeing things coming, from being thoughtful. the turtle of the hares. & # 39;
Far from the archetype of the lone-wolf agent who can use anonymity as a research tool, Gamache is a public figure, his frequent appearances in TV news and media sound bites known to everyone except the most hermetic Quebecers. In an image-driven era he is in fact a celebrity.
"Yes, but it is not something he has ever searched for," Penny said. "I was somewhat inspired (to create him) by Roméo Dallaire, who never looked for the spotlight, he had something to say, and for him all attention was a necessary evil."
In a literary police area littered with the licentious, Gamache is further characterized by its stability on the domestic front: a happy home, a loving marriage. He has more in common with John Farrow & # 39; s Cinq-Mars than with Ian Rankin's Rebus.
"I have met many police officers, including a good number who have climbed to a certain level, and they are not at that level by being alcoholics and drug addicts and hitting their wives and being at war with themselves," Penny said. "You have to be much more disciplined and focused, it was important for me to have a protagonist who is a decent center where many other things happen."
Further compaction of the current story is that Gamache is in professional shame because he has fallen from his position at the top of the Sûreté pyramid and is interrupted because of his highly unorthodox approach to the opioid crisis. And his chances of recovery do not look good.
"I wanted to investigate how decent people can fall from the pillar they have been given and how Gamache itself responds, in this particular case Gamache is not only in shame, he is also considering doing something horrible that people he trusts and who are good at him. he begs him not to do, he is in a situation that he almost has to go in. It is that idea of the tyranny of the greater good. & # 39;
Like others who deal with crime and extreme human crime, Gamache lives with a form of PTSD, and it is not a single-case condition with a simple solution. On the contrary, it is building for its entire career, and you get the feeling that it is coming to a climax.
"We'd like to think that we can split things up and lock them up, but it's a foolishness," Penny said. "Gamache's world view is that we live in what is figuratively a longhouse, and that every person we meet, every thought we have there with us, lives there, and we have to process that, make peace with everything that is there with us, he struggles because of what he has been handed over in his life. & # 39;
Gamache's possessed optimism often discredits him in a philosophical way with his son-in-law and fellow agent Jean-Guy Beauvoir, a character who could support his own series.
"Jean-Guy's belief is that if you look deep enough at a good person, you will find something bad, something bad," Penny said. "Gamache is the opposite – look deeply into a bad person and you will find it good, it is based on the belief that the heart of most people is decent, but that is a belief that you can bite into the ass."
Despite her work allowance, a few years ago, Penny finds time to read her contemporaries and guide writers of ambitious crime. She is optimistic about the state of health of her genre and about her dignity of a place in the literary phase.
"I think we are now in a real renaissance, not only in Canada but worldwide, its breadth and depth – traditional, noir, police procedures – and the level of writing … it's so high." I get so frustrated when people hang up walls and create genre-ghettos, and when people say that they only read that and that kind.If writing is good, it's all literary fiction. & # 39;
Although she is clearly delighted with her enormous international popularity – she has been translated into 26 languages and calls them number 1 bestselling rankings as if they were not a big deal – the Toronto resident claims to be even more proudly accepted as a non-Quebecer who has been internalized and done justice to the environment in Quebec.
"The protagonist is a French-speaking person and many of the others are Québécois, which of course I am not, but my neighbors, my friends, French-speaking readers – they seem very open to it."
So, while Inspector Gamache shows certain signs of personal wear and tear, he is far from exhausted as a character, and Penny is far from finished with him. A measure of her attention for her creation is the way she talks about him as if he were a friend of flesh and blood.
"There is no element of him that I find tiring," she said. "He is evolving, he is changing, and sometimes in ways that can be disappointing for readers, in fiction as in life, we can not always do the right things, sometimes it's about doing something wrong and then having the humility recognizing it, or being defeated by a casserole to recognize it. & # 39;
AT A GLANCE
Kingdom of the blind is scheduled for release on Tuesday, November 27th.