Book Review – Still Life

  • Title: Still Life
  • Author: Louise Penny
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/05/2018

Still Life is an intriguing mystery novel set in a small Anglophone (English-speaking) village in Quebec. It features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec, the Quebec Provincial Police, and his associates. When Jane, a retired schoolteacher, is found dead in the woods near the remote village of Three Pines in November, everyone assumes it is a tragic hunting accident, especially as she was killed by an arrow. However, things are not always what they seem, especially in quaint artistic villages.

On the Friday before her death, Jane Neal, who had painted for years but never shown anyone her art, submitted a painting for the nearby village juried art show. The painting is quite a surprise to the committee but Clara, Jane’s friend, who also is a struggling artist, sees the brilliance of the piece – and convinces the jury to submit the painting to the art show. Two days later, on Sunday, Jane is killed.

Gamache and his crew investigate – assuming the killing was accidental, but trying to find the person who did it. Three Pines holds quite a number of secrets – as well as being populated by people who had found success and given it up to do what they always wanted to do by moving to the village (eg. becoming artists like Clara and her husband Peter; or owning her own bookstore, like the former counselor). Gamache also has a new trainee, Yvette Nichol. One of the brilliant aspects of Still Life is how the character of Nichol is written and treated. In general, the book is third person omniscient – letting you discover what the Inspector and townspeople are doing. But scenes with Yvette also change to her point of view and way of thinking. Yvette always, always, manages to get it wrong, no matter what she does. Gamache tries to take her under his wing and train her – but she bristles under any orders or suggestions he gives her. When she manages to give a good suggestion on the case, she assumes she’s solved it – and demands the credit. I found myself wondering just what was wrong with Yvette. At times she seems almost Autistic – completely unaware of how to connect with people.

The story is extremely well-written and the description of people and places really bring them to mind – without being so full of trivial details as to be irritating. The book also is not so breezy and lacking detail as to be bland and superficial either. It’s a perfect balance.

The story really is about perspective. The perspective Jane puts into her painting – and all her art. The way that Gamache perceives his new trainee – and the way she, in turn, perceives herself and her new position. The way the townspeople perceive each other. Just what, one perceives as success. The painting becomes a metaphor for all of this and more. The artistic backdrop is not simply a background for a cozy mystery – it is integral to the plot and who these characters are. Still Life is a brilliant novel – that is also a well-written mystery.

I highly recommend this novel.