Thursday, December 20, 2012

Still Life by Louise Penny: A review

Earlier this year, the leader of my local Mystery Book Club introduced me to the work of Louise Penny. As our book club selection for that month, we read Bury Your Dead. Wonderful book! I knew that I had to get to know that humane policeman, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec better. At my earliest opportunity, I would go back and start reading this award-winning series from the beginning. Well, my opportunity came this week when I picked up the first book in the series,  Still Life,  to read.

Immediately, I was propelled once again back into the idyllic village of Three Pines. The peace of the village had been shattered by the death of one its well-loved residents, Jane Neal. Her body was found in the woods on a Sunday morning. She had been pierced by an arrow straight through her heart.

It was bow hunting season in the area and the villagers were convinced that Jane had been killed by accident by some careless bow hunter. But when Chief Inspector Gamache arrives on the scene, he finds some anomalies. First and foremost, the arrow is missing. If this were just an accident, wouldn't the arrow still be in the area?

Gamache learns that Jane was an artist who had never exhibited her work, never showed it to anyone. But just a few days before she was killed, she had offered one of her paintings to be a part of a local show and the painting had been accepted. It was a Three Pines scene, the last day of a local fair. Why did she suddenly decide to make her work public and is there some connection between that fact and her death?

The problem that Gamache has is that there seems to be no motive for anyone wanting Jane dead and yet his instincts tell him that this was indeed murder most foul and he must dig into the long-held secrets of this insular village to find the murderer.

This series is nominally within the mystery genre, but it is so much more than that. Penny writes with such lucidity and grace about everyday people, people that any of us may know. She gives us character studies that reveal those people and their relationships to us. Here she is writing about a long-time married couple at the center of this mystery. The two are having trouble communicating with each other:
There it was again. A silence between them. Something else unsaid. Is this how it starts? Clara wondered. Those chasms between couples, filled not with comfort and familiarity, but with too much unsaid, and too much said.
With just those few words she has painted a vivid picture of a couple in pain.

Or, again, here is Gamache ruminating as he enters the home of a suspect:
Homes, Gamache knew, were a self-portrait. A person's choice of color, furnishing, pictures. Every touch revealed the individual. God, or the Devil, was in the details. And so was the human. Was it dirty, messy, obsessively clean? Were the decorations chosen to impress, or were they a hodgepodge of personal history? Was the space cluttered or clear? He felt a thrill every time he entered a home during an investigation. He was desperate to get into Jane Neal's home, but that would have to wait. For now the Crofts were about to reveal themselves.
And reveal themselves they do to Gamache, the ultimate observer.

As he sits or walks around the village and observes, Gamache learns that all of these villagers, so placid and easy-going on the surface, are hiding pain. One who isn't bothering to hide it is Ruth, a poet. Ruth, the poet-observer could be speaking for herself and all her fellow villagers:

Who hurt you, once,
so far beyond repair
that you would greet each
overture
with curling lip?


Three Pines may not be on topographical maps, but Louise Penny has certainly put it on the literary map. A couple of years back when Ms. Penny came to Houston for an event, my daughter who works for the Houston Public Library, had an opportunity to spend some time with her. In fact, she acted as her chauffeur to and from the airport. She told me what a charming person she was and what a good writer she was and recommended that I read her books. I wish I had listened to my daughter and started reading sooner. But now I intend to make up for lost time.

2 comments:

  1. Her next book is already schedule for publication in August ... thank goodness! :D :D

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    1. I've got a lot of reading pleasure ahead of me in order to get current with her. I've already started the second book, A Fatal Grace.

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