Book review – “Still Life” by Louise Penny


There’s an art to writing about catching a killer too…

I don’t mind crime and/or detective fiction. The fact I’m grouping them together rather than trying to differentiate them would probably tell real fans of either that I’m not exactly an expert on the genre. Occasionally, though, I do pick them up for a quick, easy read and this one, with its pretty cover, happened to be sitting at the local secondhand book shop. I feel like I’m not reading enough lately and that foregoing my long-term method of relaxing is effectively self-sabotage, so I grabbed it and away we went.

Three Pines is a sleepy little village deep in the Canadian countryside and an elderly woman, Jane Neal, has been found dead from an arrow shot into her heart. It’s hunting season (and hunting with bows and arrows is a thing in Canada? Mind blown) and accidents happen, but we all know that this is no accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sûreté du Québec is the star of the show and he has to rifle through the eccentric yet apparently innocuous residents of Three Pines to determine who the killer actually is.

This is one of those books where I kept reading and reading to find out what the ending was even as I though I didn’t really like it all that much. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely wasn’t as remarkable as the critical praise listed on its first pages led me to hope for.

I liked the village itself. I wouldn’t mind stopping by there and letting Gabri and Olivier serve me lunch, even if they couldn’t be more stereotypically gay if they sat down and tried. I liked the victim, Jane, and the uncovering of her little quirks, and I didn’t mind the characters of Clara and Peter Morrow or the Crafts. The ending, when I got to it, was decent enough – it was surprising in that the motive just wasn’t that strong, but it wasn’t wholly unreasonable and I find a lot of books in this genre require suspension of disbelief anyway.

Another thing that I really liked was the insights into Canada, Quebec and the tension between the English and the French. This is not an area that I know a lot about and while it wasn’t a huge part of the main story, it made for an interesting part of the backdrop.

My main issue was pretty much all the characters I didn’t list in the paragraph before last. I understand that this is the cozy style of detective story (light on blood, sex and violence with an emphasis instead of unconventional people and/of methods for solving the crime) and a characteristic of the genre is a somewhat flimsy supporting cast. That’s… well, it’s fine, but I’m not a fan of it. Many of the characters felt a bit absurd, put there to simply fill space, but my main issues are with the two annoying female characters, Agent Yvette Nichol and the victim’s niece, Yolande. The latter just felt shockingly underdone for someone who was supposed to be quite critical to the story, heavily reliant on stereotypes of real estate agents and nasty, apparently, for the sake of being so. The former was just bewildering. She was introduced even before Gamache himself, which led me to think she was going to be a major player,  but instead she turned out to be a bumbling moron who I think was supposed to be either an example of what not to do or for some humorous relief? I’m honestly not sure. I kept wondering why she was there. Why was she supposed to have caught Gamache’s attention in the first place if she was such a moron, and why was she even a character? She kept being held up as an example of shocking behaviour but, aside from a particularly big mistake regarding the wills and some idiotic trains of thought, nothing she did seemed as horribly bad as the other characters seemed to think it was?

Then there was Gamache himself. I felt like I was supposed to already know him and his work before I started reading. For a moment, this made sense when I looked up the book and discovered it was part of a series… but then I discovered this book was the first in the series. I liked what I could see of Gamache, yes. He seems an endearing sort of protagonist, and his method of being very polite to everyone and waiting for them to slip up in some way is interesting enough. I just didn’t get a really strong sense of him. I assume this must have developed as the series went on given the fans it has, but that doesn’t really help me with this book.

Like I said, I didn’t hate the book or anything. Some elements of it are lingering with me, and it feels like there was potential there for it be a lot better than it was. I also want to note that I’m more of a fan of more complex, defined characters, which means this genre probably doesn’t suit me full stop. As a quick, light read, however, this book works well enough even if I’m unlikely to revisit it.


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