'Glass Houses' author Louise Penny talks about crime, conscience, and Canada

'There's a lot of fabulous Canadian crime fiction,' says Penny. 'Our mysteries are maybe more of a slow burn than others, but they're really worth discovering.'

'Glass Houses' is by Louise Penny.

In Shakespeare, Hamlet produces a play to "catch the conscience of the king." In Louise Penny's new mystery novel, a mysterious black-clad figure stands silently in a Quebec village square with a similar goal in mind.

He (or she) appears to want to shame a guilty person. But how far should the quest for justice go? What price is too high?

Penny, a Canadian journalist-turned-bestselling author, digs deeply into themes of balancing means and ends in her captivating new book. Monitor reviewer Yvonne Zipp describes "Glass Houses" as a "top notch" work and compares Penny to Tana French and P.D. James.

In an interview, Penny talks about crime, Canada, and conscience. She even politely responds to a crack about polite Canadians.

Q: What drew you to write about crime?

Growing up in Toronto, the first adult book I read was an Agatha Christie. My mother handed it to me, and it became the template for our reading and sharing of books.

Our relationship wasn't always smooth and easy, but the book was the white flag, the peace offering. We'd ask each other what we were reading, and we could find common ground.

Q: Present company excluded, Canadian mystery authors tend to be fairly obscure. Are Canadians too polite to knock each other off in fiction?

Absolutely not. I'm proud to say that we're undergoing a real renaissance, maybe a "naissance," with authors like Alan Bradley and Peter Robinson.

There's a lot of fabulous Canadian crime fiction.

Our mysteries are maybe more of a slow burn than others, but they're really worth discovering.

Q: Police corruption in Quebec is a major theme in "Glass Houses." Is that a big issue in real life?

There have been big scandals about corruption within police, government, and unions. Politicians have had to resign.

It's human nature. Very few people sign up to be able to beat, cheat, steal, and imprison people unfairly and murder. But an environment is created, and allowed to continue, that rewards that kind of corruption.

Q: How does police corruption play out in Quebec?

It means being in cahoots with organized crime, taking payoffs, not making arrests, stealing drugs rather than confiscating.

But I don't want to give the impression that this is common. And while we have a sick feeling that it happened at all, we're proud that when it became clear, the full weight of the law came down on it. Commissions have been created, officers and politicians arrested.

Q: Your detective – Armand Gamache, now director of the Quebec provincial police force known as the Sûreté – must decide how far to go in pursuit of justice. What were you trying to explore through his story?

Everyone struggles with how much bad should be done in the name of the greater good. Does the end justify the means?

Gamache struggles because I do, too. He doesn't know the answer and he's facing a terrible choice – a Hobson's choice, a Sophie's choice, everybody's choice.

Either way, he knows his conscience will torment him. There's no safe ground.

Q: In the book, we learn why the black-clad figure is in the village square and watch bloody consequences unfold. What did you want to explore about our consciences through this character?

Each of the villagers feels the conscience is there for them since each of them has something they're ashamed of.

Most of us have a secret, sometimes extremely banal. What we don't sometimes realize is the power of a sincere apology, not just one that's been yanked out of us. That can clear up resentment on both sides.

Q: I've asked this of mystery authors Nevada Barr and Anthony Horowitz, and I'll ask it of you too: Have you ever killed off a real person in fiction?

I don't have think I have murdered... Oh, yes.  There was one in my second book.

This person never recognized themselves, which is good. People who are vile never see it.

It's very therapeutic. All the things that hurt us and maim us, the jealousies and rages, loves and losses and sorrows, become fodder for authors. The fuller lives we live as writers, the more we have to call on.

If I can own the facts that I have wanted people dead but never acted on it, that I've been so jealous of someone that I could barely look at them, if I can show these feelings and bring them to a character, then these terrible things become less terrible. It's a kind of alchemy.

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