Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Still Life

I disliked Louise Penny's Still Life so much at first that I put it away after about 10 pages, convinced that it was too cute a village mystery for me. 

But a couple of weeks ago, I found myself craving the cozy rythyms of a village mystery, where eveyrone knows everyone, warts and all, and spends a certain amount of time thawing out from chill winds in front of crackling fires, possibly with some fresh-baked bread at hand.  So I picked up Still Life again, and am pleased to report that it a) provided cold rains and crackling fires in abundance, and b) offered a well-crafted murder mystery that ended with a satisfying revelation of a murderer whom we didn't quite see coming despite the clues that in retrospect were obvious. 

Still Life is the first Inspector Armand Gamache (that's with a m, not a n, no he is not a creamy chocolate filling) novel, and Gamache himself is a terrifically appealing character.  First, he's a francophone Canadian, which of course lends a certain je ne sais quoi to all that he does.  Second, he's smart, happily married, and succesfull at his work as a Chief Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec.   He appreciates a good meal, but isn't above throwing his authority around to get answers.  Gamache enjoys mentoring young people, and they (mostly) respond well to his attentions.  He's a listener, and doesn't appear to let pride get in his way.  Like many a fictional inspector before him (I'm thinking of P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish, Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge, and I think even Salvo Montalbano knows his Italian, or at least his Sicilian literature) he quotes poetry with ease, something that always mystifies and impresses me since about the only poems I can remember is "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the end of that ultra-depressing Wilfred Owen one about WW1, "Dulce et Decorum Est."  Are there poetry-spouting homicide investigators in real life?  There is not a lot of poetry on Law and Order, for example. 

The action takes place in Three Pines, a charming wee village in southern Quebec, near the US border.  A much beloved elderly lady is killed by an arrow, and while most assume this to be a tragic hunting accident, Gamache and his team are not so sure.  As with any solid village mystery, the locals reveal themselves to be a mixed and mixed-up bunch, with plenty of skeletons in their charming antique closets and motives fly like the arrows.  Obviously it is NOT an accident for that would make for a supremely unsatisfying denouement, and who would ever read that book?  The tale wends through the area in a rather satisfying manner among the locals, and everyone is touched by suspicion sooner or later. 

The atmosphere in Three Pines is one of rural affluence, although several of the characters are revealed to be living on the edge of poverty.   Still, it has to be that New England preppy world of silvery pageboys (check out the pics of author Penny on her webpage and you'll see what I mean) and well-worn hunting clothes, steaming mugs sipped in definingly picturesque settings, and if not cocktails then regular gatherings for any event large or small, replete with wine and in-joke hilarity. It is kind of the lumberjack version of Martha's Vineyard.

In retrospect, there are some threads that I'm not sure were tied up - whatever happened to the physical evidence linking the Crofts to the murder, and the oddly antagonistic Agent Nichol, did she ever get on that bus back to Montreal?  I may have been reading too fast, anxious to get back to the fire, and missed a bit of this. 

But this story did NOT introduce some random character at the end to be revealed as the killer.  Nor did Inspector Gamache have a quiet word with anyone and then arrange the trap.  We might have figured it out if we'd been paying attention, although there were a few character traits revealed at the end, on which I'd have like a bit more foreshadowing.  Still, it is surprisingly satisfying to read this kind of mystery and still have an a-ha moment that doesn't cause an eye roll.

I didn't realize until reading Penny's webpage that pretty much ALL of these stories, or at least a lot of the first ones, continue to take place in Three Pines.  When I did learn this I was skeptical that it would work.  How much plaid flannel can one series take?  But I think I will return.  At the time I picked this book up again, I needed to imagine that there was such a place where you could live an involved life, develop deep friendships, retain some sophistication, but still take a walk in the woods or burrow deep under the bedclothes if you needed to. 

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