Sunday, July 10, 2011

Books That Grab Me: Louise Penny's Still Life

Get ready for beautiful writing, a slow pace, and some twists you should see coming a few hundred pages off in Louise Penny's Still Life.  I think the element I enjoyed most of this debut novel was the return-to-life of a convincing Hercule Poirot-like character.  He's proper, not quite so quirky, inside the system (as a policeman rather than a private investigator), and not afraid to disagree with the police bureaucracy.  It's a richer, deeper world than Agatha Christie usually wrote about, which is its first charm for me.

Almost all crime fiction I can think of relies on one of three motives: character X commits a crime for revenge, to hide another crime, or to steal a lot of money (e.g., through inheritance).  So when a retired teacher in a small town in Quebec winds up shot through with an arrow (outside of hunting season), it's clear we're going to have an interesting dig through the beating life of the town and its cast of quirky, artistic residents.  The victim was a famously odd painter, who lived among a lot of other artists, and it turns out that a painting she chose to put in a show had a major role in ending her life, not that she knew it.

There are flaws that mar the book: the minor character of a young police woman who hides her discomfort behind arrogance and refuses to learn, a relative of the victim who's as venal and uninteresting as they come, long discursions about bow hunting and old arrows in the hunt for the killer.  Lots of material that feels like filler, to make the book thicker between killing and solution.  Still, when our Inspector Gamache is in the scene, we like to try to guess where he might lead us, where his mind might choose to take us.

I suspect that the books written after the first will utilize the same small town as its background.  I suspect it could be a limited canvas to work with, but this writer might be able to pull it off.

Once I finished the book and thought about its charms and faults, I realized it was deeply considered.  (Not the way some thriller writers need flowcharts to figure out all the false clues and dead ends of the labyrinth they construct for each book.)  Not a lot happens, but we get taken into depth with a number of the characters.  Because of that vantage the solution comes as a relief, even if its not a surprise.  We have a crime that ticks all three boxes, in the end, a murder committed to hide an earlier murder, for money from an inheritance, and out of a twisted sense of revenge for a man who had a twisted view of his own mother.  A murder percolating in his mind for decades.  That revelation hinted at in the beginning of the tale and confirmed at the end is perhaps the most chilling aspect of the tale, this rage that wore a neutral face for so long.

Read the book for the well-woven crime and even more for the fascinating new detective to walk in Poirot's footsteps.  Bravo.

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