A mystery writer with a taste for true crime

Best-selling author Louise Penny has won about every crime fiction award there is for her series set in the fictional village of Three Pines, Quebec. In her most recent, “Glass Houses,” a masked figure shows up on the town green, which, as Chief Inspector Armand Gamache well knows, is never a good sign. The Canadian author speaks at 2 p.m. Friday at the weekend-long Nantucket Book Festival. Her reading is free, as are most of the festival’s events.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

PENNY: I just finished an advance copy of Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s book, “The President is Missing.” Bill and I are friends. It’s not normally what I read, but it’s really fantastic. I’m just about to start “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, which is told from the viewpoint of a gorilla. It’s apparently extremely philosophical.


BOOKS: Is that typical of something you would read?

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PENNY: No. Normally I read a lot of nonfiction. The only thing that makes me sad about my career is that I don’t read much fiction because I don’t want to be overly influenced by other writers. I quite like true crime. I was in Australia recently and asked people there what I should read. They suggested Helen Garner’s “Joe Cinque’s Consolation,” which is about a woman who murdered her boyfriend. She had dinner parties leading up to the murder, and most of the guests knew she planned to kill him. It’s riveting.

BOOKS: What are your tastes in true crime?

PENNY: Some of it is old crime. I just finished Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy.” It’s about a 13-year-old who murders his mother. It looks at conditions in Victorian London and what would drive a boy to do such a terrible thing. She’s a genius storyteller. She wrote one of my favorite books of all time, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” which is about one of the first murder investigations by police in Victorian England.

BOOKS: Do you read any other kind of nonfiction?


PENNY: I’m in London, and one of the things I do habitually here is go to the Natural History Museum to visit a fish. It’s called a coelacanth. When it was first discovered off the coast of Sri Lanka, they thought it was the missing link. I learned about it by reading Samantha Weinberg’s “A Fish Caught in Time.” I don’t know if anyone other than the author’s mother and me have read it.

BOOKS: Before you became a writer, which novelists did you read?

PENNY: I love Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, the South American writers with the vividness in their writing. I read a lot of golden-age British crime fiction and the French novelist Georges Simenon, who wrote the Maigret books. I recently reread “Maigret at the Crossroads.” Fabulous. Anyone considering a career in crime fiction would do well to read Simenon or Josephine Tey.

BOOKS: What else do you read?

PENNY: I read a lot of poetry. One of my pieces of probably useless advice for emerging writers is to read poetry. I don’t care if it’s a greeting card or Shakespeare. They get in a couplet what I struggle to achieve in a book. My favorite poet, this is slightly embarrassing because he’s a dead white man, is W.H. Auden. My work is very much inspired by a couplet in his poem “Herman Melville.”


BOOKS: Did you read Canadian writers when you were in school?

‘I don’t read much fiction because I don’t want to be overly influenced by other writers.’

PENNY: Farley Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf” and “A Whale for the Killing” had a big impact on me. To read a living Canadian writer that I loved was a revelation. If he could do it maybe I could. I was 13 or 14. When “Still Life” was about to come out, my husband and I were on a train to Toronto. I looked up the compartment, and there was Mowat. I spent four hours wondering whether I should say something. I finally went up and told him how much his writing had meant to me. He was very gracious. I went back to my seat and cried. I was so overwhelmed with meeting him.

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