Friday, January 20, 2012


After 9/11, dystopic Chicago, a cranky old lady from Maine, a family broken by loss, and a woman kept as a sexual captive for seven years, I was feeling the need for something a little lighter in tone. Now one might argue that a book that contains a violent death and the impact that death has on a small community isn’t exactly light, but Still Life, Louise Penny’s first novel featuring Inspector Armand Gamache and the town of Three Pines, Québec, could be categorized in that mystery genre called cozy. Not much violence, a little scary, and a satisfying conclusion.

Three Pines is a close-knit community located in Québec’s Eastern Townships, where the factory has closed down (and the matriarch of the factory owning family has recently died from cancer), but artists, antique dealers, and well-off retirees are keeping the town vital. A long-time resident and retired schoolteacher, Jane Neal, has recently submitted a painting to the local art show, and those who have seen the painting are surprised and amazed by its primitive style. Just a few days after Jane learned that her work had been accepted for display, she is found dead in the woods outside her home – an arrow pierced her heart.

As a formality, officers from the Sûreté de Québec are sent to investigate what everyone believes to be a hunting accident, but the experienced Chief Inspector Armand Gamache begins poking around and soon reveals that someone murdered Jane face-to-face in a particularly grisly way. And then, you know how it goes.

The setting is evocative here; the action takes place in the days following Canadian Thanksgiving as the light recedes, the cold grows deep, snow threatens, and Jane’s friends come to the horrific realization that someone they know has killed in cold blood. The descriptions of Jane’s art – as well as that of some of the other characters – are vivid enough that you can easily visualize them. I liked the dual nature of the title, not only its visual art connection (although Jane does not paint still lifes), but the idea that a person who resists change remains still, or stagnant. I had pegged the murderer pretty early on (well, not really pegged, but I was viewing the person very suspiciously), but Gamache and Three Pines were so engaging that sticking with the story was no problem.

Still Life is read by Ralph Cosham, a new-to-me narrator. He reads with a quiet command of characters and story, much as Inspector Gamache controls both his own staff and the residents of Three Pines. It’s not a fully voiced interpretation, but dialogue is natural-sounding and determining who is speaking is not a problem. When we’ve learned who the murderer is and this person is threatening another character, Cosham reads tensely. His Québeçois French sounded OK to me, but I am not really a judge. It’s been a while since I listened to this, but I remember that Cosham’s pronunciation of Sûreté surprised me. I thought it was in three syllables (SUH-reh-tay), but he said it more in two (SUR-tay). (Warning: Neither of those written pronunciations capture what the word actually sounds like!)

I’ve said before that I really don’t need to start another mystery series (I’m way behind – Penny’s written seven books), but Gamache and Three Pines are worth visiting again. Of course, where I really want to visit is the Eastern Townships (directly north of Vermont and New Hampshire) themselves. Sometimes it feels like the places I want to go is as long a list as that of the books I want to read.

[The image is a print from Pinsonneault Frères of Upper Melbourne in the Eastern Townships in 1910.The original is located in the McCord Museum of Canadian History, and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Still Life by Louise Penny
Narrated by Ralph Cosham
Blackstone Audio, 2006. 9:35

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