Friday, April 10, 2015

Still Life by Louise Penny

  Still Life is the first in Louise Penny's mystery series starring Chief Inspector Gamache.  The story is set in Three Pines, a small town near Montreal where no one locks their doors.  The victim is Jane Neal.  Her body is found near a deer trail.  It appears she was shot with an arrow.  Everyone would like to think it was a hunting accident; that someone shot her by mistake and was too ashamed and embarrassed to come forward.  Gamache is fairly certain that it was more than an accident, but then that begs the question, why would any kill an old lady who by all accounts was friendly, kind and generous to all?

I read different genres with different expectations.  In the case of mysteries I look for either great characters or a good puzzle with an even better solution.  Still Life had a decent puzzle but the characters are the big draw.  With respect to Gamache and his team, Still Life felt like a good beginning to the series.  By the end I had some idea of the kind of detective and man Gamache was.  This was also true of his second-in-command Jean Guy but less true of the rest of his team.

One of the most interesting parts of the story was that of new to the homicide team, Agent Nichol.  It is not unusual to have a newbie on the team who makes lots of mistakes but who eventually proves him or herself.  Agent Nichol does the exact opposite, starting off strong and going downhill.  She is rude and arrogant, lacking any sort of emotional intelligence.  I couldn't help but think of the television characters House and Backstrom (which I guess is also a literary character) only unlike those characters, Nichol genuinely doesn't seem to realize that she is rude and arrogant or how she affects other people.  One of the funniest and saddest moments in the book is when Nichol notices a sticker on a mirror that reads "You're looking at the problem," and her reaction is to search the area behind her.

As rude and arrogant as Nichol was, I felt sorry for her.  Gamache tries to advise her but she does not get it.  One gets the sense that Nichol needs more than someone telling her to be nice.  She needs someone to explain to her that she shouldn't call people stupid to their face even when what the person is saying makes little sense because it hurts people's feelings and also because people tend to not to want to talk to you anymore when you call them stupid and that's bad since a lot of a detective's job involves talking to people and getting them to open up to you.  I kept waiting for Nichol to be diagnosed with some sort of disorder.  I hope she appears later in the series just so someone can figure out what's wrong with her.

I realize I just wrote about a side character than the main story, which says something.  The mystery was interesting up until it was solved.  I did not love the solution.  I don't need to be able to solve the mystery to like the book, but I do like to at least be able to look back and think, that thing that seemed like nothing was a clue and now it all makes sense.  Here the solution to the puzzle seemed a little like, hey now it's time to end this thing so time to pick someone to be the bad guy.

As I've said in other places on this blog, one of things I like about reading novels written by non-American authors or set in countries other than the U.S. is that I get to learn about other parts of the world. Still Life is set in the Quebec province, the French part of Canada.  One thing I liked about Still Life is that it touches on the tension between English and French speakers in the province.  At one point a character complains about being an English speaker surrounded by French speakers.  (One can only how wonder how French speakers feel when they cross over into one of Canada's other provinces.)  And a fun fact I learned: In Canada Thanksgiving is celebrated on a Sunday or Monday.  Further research on Wikipedia reveals that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October!  Who knew?  Well I guess Canadians knew and now I do too.

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