Summer Reading: Mystery

Still Life

By Margaret Goldik

A review of Still Life by Louise Penny

Published on July 1, 2006

Still Life
Louise Penny

McArthur & Company
$24.95
paper
312pp
0-7553-2889-2

Louise Penny is a former CBC radio host, and there is a whiff of CBC political correctness about this debut mystery novel, as well as a few too many adjectives at the beginning. (As the adjectives are shed, though, the story starts to move.) There is also a distracting tendency for the point of view to shift, especially to that of minor characters.

Apart from these small criticisms, Still Life is a solid read. Penny introduces a fascinating detective, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, a man who values human relations over getting ahead in the Sûreté rat race.

The setting is a village in the Eastern Townships, remote enough to seem like a private world, but not so remote that the village is not populated by exiles from urban life: a black psychologist turned bookstore owner; two gay men who run the inn and the bed-and-breakfast, and others. They are the equivalent of Agatha Christie’s genteel middle class: they have potluck suppers, run the craft shows, and are death on hunters. The indigenous village people are generally bit players, but some vivid characters spring out of the pages of Still Life.

Without giving away too much of the plot, an elderly woman who is about to put a picture in the art show for the first time is found dead in the woods, shot with a hunting arrow. (Archery figures prominently throughout.) Gamache is mentoring a new “agent” and the village literati have some grieving to do. And few things are what they seem. Everyone, guilty or innocent, is touched by the murder, and the reader gets a look into people’s lives and psyches as they cope with suspicion. Once past the first tentative chapters, the reader will find Still Life hard to put down. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.

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