Saturday, October 17, 2015

Complex, Enjoyable Still Life SO Much More Than a Cozy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

South of Montreal, near the U.S. border, sits a small, idyllic village called Three Pines.  With its lush natural beauty, quaint shops, and warm-hearted residents, it's a lovely, postcard-perfect kind of place.  A place where "the only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time" (1%).  From a distance, it looks like a snow globe scene, perpetually safe inside its protective bubble.  No community can be that flawless, of course.  As in every other town, plenty of tension simmers beneath Three Pines' serene surface.  

Still, the discovery of a dead body in the woods comes as a great shock.  Especially since it belongs to Jane Neal, a retired teacher much beloved in the village.  Pierced with an arrow, she appears to have been the victim of a tragic hunting accident.  Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, however, isn't convinced.  Determined to discover what really happened to the elderly teacher, he and his team take up temporary residence in Three Pines.  Intelligent and thoughtful, Gamache knows the better acquainted he is with the townspeople, the more forthcoming they will be.  But as he becomes more and more familiar with the colorful village people, slowly falling in love with them and their town, the less he wants to suspect any of them of killing an old woman.  And yet, it's his duty to find her murderer.  Was it Jane's greedy niece?  Or someone with a less obvious motive?  As pressure to solve the case intensifies, it's up to Gamache to find a killer among his new found friends.  Can he do it in time or will he become the next victim?

Despite its intimate, small-town setting, labeling Still Life by Canadian author Louise Penny a "cozy" mystery would be a mistake.  The novel, the first in her popular Armand Gamache series, is much more than that.  I completely agree with what Penny said about her books in a recent interview with BookPage:

To call them cozies is to completely misread!  I get very annoyed at anyone who calls them cozies, or even traditional.  I think it's facile for people to think that anything set in a village must, per force, be superficial and simplistic.  (BookPage, September 2015 issue, Pages 14-15)

Too true.  Still Life introduces a town that, to an outsider, looks as cozy as a fleece blanket, when in truth, it's more like a patchwork quilt—still warm, but with a variety of pieces, patterns, and stitching styles that create a more layered, complex beauty than is apparent at first glance.  The novel isn't really about the murder of a community member, it's about the community itself.  It's about the people who live there, the relationships they have with each other, and the ways in which they deal with their differences—in personality, in cultural background, in political views, in everything.  Still Life and the books that follow are character-driven mysteries, focusing on the most appealing of Penny's story people: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.  Unlike most of literature's craggy, uncouth police personnel, Gamache is a kind and consummate gentleman.  Although he battles his own demons, he's a positive man, happily married, and upbeat even in the face of his often unpleasant duties.  A breath of fresh air, for sure.  All that being said, you'll be happy to know that Penny doesn't skimp on plot.  There's plenty happening to keep the story moving along.  Although I figured out who the killer was before Gamache did, I wasn't totally sure I was right until the very end.  That's the mark of a good murder mystery, in my book.  In case you can't tell, all of these elements blend to make Still Life a fun, compelling read.  I enjoyed it immensely, as I did the next book in the series and the next and the ... you get the picture.  If you dig murder mysteries that are more than just another police procedural, definitely try this series on for size.  It's a darn good one.     

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Armand Gamache series [A Fatal Grace; The Cruelest Month; A Rule Against Murder; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead; A Trick of the Light; The Beautiful Mystery; How the Light Gets In; The Long Way Home; and The Nature of the Beast)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder invectives) and violence

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Still Life from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha. 

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