Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review - Louise Penny's Still Life

Still Life by Louise Penny
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 11th, 2006
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Life in Three Pines is about to change forever. Jane Neal is a doyenne of Three Pines and just one of the many eccentrics loved by the residents. But Jane Neal has a secret. She has painted her whole life but she has never let anyone see her paintings, let alone invited them into her house beyond the kitchen. Jane has decided that the time has come to show the world her art, and in particular her small group of friends. But just two days after being accepted into the area's prestigious juried art show she is found dead in the woods. Her death looks like it might be a hunting accident, it is afterall Thanksgiving Weekend and the bow hunters are out in force. But Chief Inspector Armand Gamace of the Sûreté du Québec who is called in early on that Thanksgiving morning isn't sure Miss Neal's death is an accident. The aim of the arrow is too accurate and the murder weapon is missing. Beneath the placid surface of Three Pines Jane wasn't the only one with secrets to hide. After a shocking gay bashing a few days before Jane's murder, it looks like this small town is going into some kind of revolt and it's up to Armand Gamace and his team to bring back the peace.    

I've heard about Louise Penny and Chief Inspector Gamace for a few years now. But a cozy murder mystery series tends to be a comfort read for me so this book has been on a back burner, waiting, while my bloggerly duties took over my reading. A little over two years ago when they announced that this first book was being adapted for television starring everyone's favorite brooding detective, Inspector Lynley, ahem, I mean Nathaniel Parker as Gamace, I made a note that I should definitely move Still Life up the "to be read" pile. Yet it wasn't until my mother's book club chose it as one of their monthly reads that I finally bit the bullet and devoured Still Life. This book is not a masterpiece, not by a long shot, and falls prey to many problems of the first time writer, but there is something homey about it, something about the community created with the cast of characters that makes me feel deep in my bones that this is a series that will get better as it goes on and I want to read those further stories.

The cast of characters is both the book's strength and weakness. Penny is creating a community that we will want to return to. To me it's like the Candian Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, obviously without the supernatural element. But the thing about the Sookie books is that the mysteries were secondary, it was spending time with this well-rounded cast of characters that made you keep coming back for more. The problem with the cast of characters in Three Pines is that they have potential, but are not well rounded. They are very much the stereotypical cast of characters. The gay couple who run the bistro and bed and breakfast and say "Bitch please" and "Slut" but in a "loving" manner. The large black lady who is a fount of knowledge and down home advice. The kooky artist with the flyaway hair. I could go on and on. But all I'd be doing is listing superficial two-dimensional traits. Yet that's all these characters have! Going forward Penny will have to flesh these characters out because people aren't so superficial and can't be summed up in a catchphrase. Which is why I'm more excited for the future books than I was while reading this one.

The character who harmed this book the most though is Gamace's subordinate, Agent Yvette Nichol. I hated her more than the killer. Yes, I spent an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about her death, that's how much I hated her. Even if she was the red herring baddie used to distract us while Penny waited to reveal the true villain, she was such an annoyance that I could almost not read any part of the book she was in. We've all known people in our lives whose sole outlook on the world is how everything revolves around them. They are in their own little microcosm of unreality where they are the center of the universe. Anything that doesn't matter to them or would inconvenience them is pushed aside and forgotten as being irrelevant. I have sadly even had some close friends who lived in their own little world where I felt like an intruder in their very self-centered life story. This is Agent Nichol. Any advice Gamace gives her obviously doesn't apply to her, because she knows best. Nothing sinks in, nothing latches on. The murder would have been wrapped up right away if not for her unwillingness to be a team player. She can't be on a team, because that would mean she's not the star. Plus she views her mistakes not as her fault but the cause of others, making her view herself as a victim. Could someone please make her a victim, the kind in a body bag with a toe tag? Because seriously, if she's in the next book I don't think I can read it.

Leaving Agent Nichol far far behind and going back to the other characters, an overall trait they all had which was an annoying foible in Still Life was the overuse of patois. Local sayings and even Quebecois swears were scattered throughout the book like pixy dust. Instead of adding flavor and color to the book it seemed forced into the narrative at random moments like we might be on the verge of forgetting the book is set in Quebec so here's a short sharp reminder. The patois didn't come naturally from the narrative, like it should. It felt like a gimmick. Like a mediocre substitute to actually bothering with some worldbuilding. Why would Penny bother to show us the world of Quebec when she could just tell us with a few words? This is where her greenness as an author shows. It's show not tell, not the other way around. Again, my hope is that as she grows she learns more how to develop her story and her world. Right now her world is very two dimensional when what we need and want is three.

Yet, despite all these nagging issues, they could all easily come under the heading of issues experienced by first time writers. They can be fixed in time. The core of her book, the mystery and the life of Jane, these ephemeral things that trip up even experienced writers succeeded here, making me hopeful for the future. But it's Jane's home that captured my imagination the most. I wanted into that house that even her closest friends were barred from so badly that every time there was a delay I almost audibly cried out. For us readers outside Canada we might not get the connection between Jane's house and the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. She is beloved in Canada and their answer to Grandma Moses, only with more cats. I was lucky enough to visit Nova Scotia over a decade ago and see her artwork that is on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. More importantly I was able to see her house which is situated fully in this Gallery. While I won't spoil the reveal in Still Life, let me say that Maud Lewis and Jane Neal had very similar decorating schemes and I think they would have gotten along marvelously.


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