Have you heard of Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny? If you haven’t, you will, because not only are her books gathering awards, her reputation is growing through that most coveted of traditions, word of mouth.
I have a few friends that are huge Penny fans. They’ve been encouraging me to read her, saying they love her characters & plots and that her writing style is just delicious. Plus the setting is in Canada, which is a bit off the beaten path for American mystery readers who have tended to lean toward British and American series (perhaps because that’s what’s been offered us, until recently). When readers at the bookstore where I work are looking for a new author I’ve been suggesting Louise Penny and hand-selling Still Life based on the recommendation of my friends. Recently I’ve bumped into two of these customers and they asked if I’ve started reading Penny yet. So, between friends and now customers telling me to read Penny, I decided it was time for me to get it in gear.
I’ve done some traveling this spring and looked for Still Life in used bookstores in Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Would you believe none of them had Still Life? Apparently people aren’t willing to give it up. So, I bought a new copy at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. My friend Missy, Louise Penny’s number one fan in the US, had a huge smile on her face when she put it in my hands.
Still Life was a little hard for me to get into, I admit, but thankfully Missy gave me a heads-up about that. I don’t know if it was the French words that threw me off or just the pacing that made it initially challenging or what. I am more of a thriller type mystery reader than a traditional who-done-it or cozy type reader and, really, there aren’t all that many French words.
What kept me reading, initially, is the last paragraph of Penny’s acknowledgements. Yes, I’m one of those weirdos who actually reads the acknowledgements page. Here is how Penny ends her two page acknowledgement section:
I went through a period of my life when I had no friends, when the phone never rang, when I thought I would die from loneliness. I know that the real blessing here isn’t that I have a book published, but that I have so many people to thank (x).
It made my heart ache to read those words because I’ve been there. I think I fell a little in love with Louise Penny for having written such a truth.
What finally drew me in and then kept me reading were Inspector Gamache’s and other character’s psychological insights. For example, in the scene at the murdered woman’s funeral where Gamache is observing people, the murdered woman’s niece, who nobody likes, is “jockeying for position as chief mourner.” Here’s the full quote:
Gamache suddenly felt deeply sorry for her. She was dressed head to toe in black and seemed to be waging an internal battle between being weak with grief, and the need to claim ownership of this tragedy. He’d seen it many times, people jockeying for position as chief mourner. It was always human and never pleasant and often misleading. Aid workers, when handing out food to starving people, quickly learn that the people fighting for it at the front are the people who need it least. It’s the people sitting quietly at the back, too weak to fight, who need it the most. And so too with tragedy. The people who don’t insist on their sorrow can often be the ones who feel it most strongly (91).
That resonated with me because I’ve seen such horrible situations and have heard stories from friends about “chief mourners,” people who actually told others that they don’t have as much to mourn or didn’t love the deceased as much as they. Can you imagine? But it happens, it happens.
There were other really good scenes or lines about human behavior or mental health that appealed to me and kept me reading. One of the characters that I enjoyed is Myrna, a former psychologist from Montreal who now owns the local bookshop. She gave up practicing psychology because she realized that too many people love their problems and simply don’t want to change. They’d rather sit and complain, whereas those who want to change do the work (131). Or this bit of wisdom from the elderly character Ruth: “They say time heals. I think that’s bullshit, I think time does nothing. It only heals if the person wants it to. I’ve seen time, in the hands of a sick person, make situations worse. They ruminate and brood and turn a minor event into a catastrophe, given enough time” (224). And then there’s the issue of giving people’s words more weight than their actions (287), which is certainly something mystery readers should avoid doing if they want to have a shot at solving the mystery before the author tells them who done it.
Still Life is a sophisticated mystery with a diverse cast of characters in a traditional, quaint, small town setting. Jane Neal, an elderly, beloved former school teacher, is found dead in the woods during deer hunting season. It was a hunting accident, right? But it is a bit harder to accidentally kill someone with a bow & arrow rather than a gun. Isn’t it? Who could possibly want to kill Jane?
I plan on reading all of the available Chief Inspector Gamache novels, but I do have enough time to read them all before the next one comes out in August? Decisions, decisions.
Here’s a list of the Chief Inspector Gamache series in chronological order:
- Still Life, 2005
- A Fatal Grace (US title) / Dead Cold, 2007
- The Cruelest Month, 2008
- A Rule Against Murder (US title) / The Murder Stone, 2009
- The Brutal Telling, 2009
- Bury Your Dead, 2010
- A Trick of Light, forthcoming, August 30, 2011
If you’re interested, check out Louise Penny’s rather cool website. She even has a pronunciation guide for those of us who don’t know French.