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Louise Penny: Goodness Exists

February 1, 2018 by Nantucket Book Festival

Louise Penny. It seems people either haven’t heard of her, or they want to adopt her into their family. I’m in the latter camp. One of my favorite moments as a bookseller is when I not only love, love, LOVE an author’s book(s), but I find out that the author is equally as wonderful – maybe even more so. That is the case with Louise Penny, which is one reason why we’re so delighted to be bringing her to the 2018 Nantucket Book Festival this June.

I met Louise and her husband Michael about 10 years ago, when Louise was the guest of honor at a speakers’ series in Rochester NY. Over lunch, we discussed Louise’s beginnings as a mystery writer, as well as Michael’s former career as Director of Hematology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, contributing significantly to treatments for childhood leukemia. What I learned that day, which Louise later shared with her fans, was that Michael was the inspiration for the fictional Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec. When Louise first began planning her series of crime novels, she anticipated having to create a detective with the typical monkeys on his back – drug addiction, alcoholism, destroyed relationships. But then she realized she would have to live with this detective for however long her writing career lasted. So instead, she decided to create a Chief Inspector who was noble, kind, compassionate, and wise. Who was, in essence, Michael.

Louise Penny with husband Michael Whitehead. Photo by AARP.

That essence permeates her novels. They are inspired by two lines from a poem by WH Auden, in his elegy to Herman Melville. Goodness existed, that was the new knowledge/his terror had to blow itself quite out to let him see it. Instead of being pulled down into the abyss of the crimes committed, Penny’s novels celebrate the light that somehow finds its way through that darkness. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen gave Louise permission to use these lines from his poem Anthem in her novel A Fatal Grace, as well as for the title to How the Light Gets In. He did not charge her a licensing fee. Of his generosity, Louise wrote, “He would give it to me for free. Free. I’d paid handsomely for other poetry excerpts, and rightly so. I’d expected to pay for this, especially given that at the time, six years ago, Mr. Cohen had just had most of his savings stolen by a trusted member of his team. Instead of asking for thousands — he asked for nothing. I cannot begin to imagine the light that floods into that man.”

Everything about Louise and Michael, and those who surround them, exudes that kind of light. A few years ago, Michael was diagnosed with dementia, and everything changed – and nothing changed. Michael was still loved, and loving. Louise was still humble, and kind, and grateful. Their friends and fans rallied. Louise became an advocate and spokesperson for Michael and his condition. And when, in September 2016, Michael died, Louise wrote:

"Michael passed away last night, at home, at peace, with love. It's not so much that his heart stopped, as that he'd finally given it all away. Surprised by joy."

Penny’s books are astonishing. Those of you who are her fans know this well; those of you who have not read her yet have so much to look forward to. The village of Three Pines and its wonderful citizens (however prone they are to murder within its borders) will live in your hearts long after the last page is turned. Louise says it best herself.

“My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.

If you take only one thing away from any of my books I'd like it to be this:

Goodness exists.”

by Maddie Hjulstrom