Still Life

“Every day for Lucy’s entire dog life Jane had sliced a banana for breakfast and had miraculously dropped one of the perfect disks on to the floor where it had sat for an entire instant before being gobbled up. Every morning Lucy’s prayers were answered, confirming that God was old and clumsy and smelt like roses and lived in the kitchen.

But no more. Lucy knew her God was dead. And she now knew the miracle wasn’t the banana, it was the hand that offered the banana.”

I’m trying to get better about reading the unopened books on my shelves, and Still Life, by Louise Penny, was the perfect size to come along in my purse the other day. I received this mystery for Christmas; it’s sad to say that seven months is a pretty quick turn-around in my world.

image from macmillan.com

In the small village of Three Pines, Montreal, where all the residents are in close contact with each other, the death of Jane Neal comes as an emotional shock. That feeling deepens upon learning that the hunting arrow responsible for killing the kindly spinster may very well have been aimed. Jane made some bold moves before her death, one of which was apparently perceived as a threat. It’s up to Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec to sift to the bottom of the mystery.

Still Life works because it blends the figure of the wise investigator with the atmosphere and cast expected of a cozy mystery. Many parts of the story are told through the perspective of Clara Morrow, an artist who is Jane’s neighbor and surrogate neice. Clara and the other villagers add a sense of pathos to the story rather than humor or suspense; some are certainly typecast, but the overall effect is not comic. In addition, Louise Penny captures the feel of a remote community in the Canadian woods, close-knot and steeped in tradition.

Inspector Gamache is calm and level-headed without being enigmatic; he collaborates frequently with his team and asks for the input of the villagers. This approach makes him generally likable but seems to antagonize his assistant Agent Nichols, a young recruit who is too cocky for her own good. Eventually Gamache will have to make difficult decisions when his personal convictions don’t agree with the public one.

The mystery itself is in satisfying, a relatively good blend of plausibility and suspense. I managed to correctly predict the culprit but second-guessed myself the rest of the book based on how the plot played out. My biggest complaint is that the climax was way too climactic. Agatha Christie never needed to rely on hurricane-like storms and several broken bones to get a point across, and for me it turned the scene into a farce. Also some comments were made about relationships merely to serve as a momentary blind for the reader.

To end on a positive, I love when a title works on several levels. Ms. Penny is up to the sixth book in the series now, and a few seem to be bargain books at Barnes and Noble (a dangerous temptation). My only qualm is that the series seems to be billed as both Inspector Gamache and Three Pines mysteries. I can understand her wanting to include the characters and setting she has developed, but I can’t expect another murder in the village and it takes away from the plausibility of a supposed procedural.

I wasn’t blown away by the book, but I did enjoy it. Louise Penny has won several awards, and apparently Still Life is also nominated for an award for Mystery of the Decade. It does seem like this is a series worth following.

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Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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