Reading Still Life was a curious reading experience for me. The first three paragraphs had me. The murder victim, the crime, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec are all introduced. Then the scene shifts.
The business of exposition begins and we are given the village and people of Three Pines, the all but hidden and seemingly idyllic community in the eastern townships of Quebec. Louise Penny creates a very vivid image here. And I was immediately put-off by it.
I remember thinking something like, “Oh, heaven help us. It’s one of those earnestly Canadian novels, tediously in love with the landscape and effusive about the gentle, polite people.” (I was wrong.)
The book moves back and forth between the compellingly interesting Gamache and the anything but compelling (for me) evocation of Three Pines. So for about the first third of the book I was a less than willing reader. But I was determined to give it a chance.
It’s a good thing I did because slowly, inevitably, my predisposition to dislike it evaporated as the book’s mystery got its hooks into me. And after a time I realized that the world the author was creating was a deliberate one meant for the contrast of a gentle village against a murder that speaks to something very dark beneath the surface. If I recall correctly, Agatha Christie did this kind of thing all the time.
Three Pines is a community filled with aging baby boomers. There’s a love of food, antiques, art, crafts … not a lot of computer programmers here or accountants or garbage men and women (though they must exist). Perhaps this explains my initial bias against it. Three Pines was a little to artsy for my tastes.
But it is also the heart of the crime, the victim being a woman with a number of mysteries that tend to centre on her art.
Given a chance by someone like me, Still Life becomes an absorbing mystery/crime novel with a particularly fascinating inspector (Gamache) tasked with solving the case.
(“He always felt a pang when looking at the hands of the newly dead, imagining all the objects and people those hands had held. The food, the faces, the doorknobs.” This reminds me of the odes of Neruda, a poet who found worlds in the most common of things.)
This is a whodunit of the old school variety placed in a contemporary Canadian setting and it works wonderfully.
In fact, I’ve already made a start on Penny’s subsequent Inspector Gamache books and look forward to reading them all.