Mystery Book Review: Still Life

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I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump in the month of September so far, so thank goodness for my friend recommending Louise Penny to me.  I just finished the first in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Still Life.

These mysteries take place in Quebec, in this first book, in a little village just south of Montreal–Three Pines.  It’s clear that from the outset Penny imagined a long relationship with her detective, Gamache, as well as with the residents of Three Pines.  Already in the first book there are important things about Gamache’s life that are referred to, but not explained.  And a hint at the possibility of further murders in the village.

Penny’s style is refreshing in that Gamache is not the center of the book’s universe.  The story begins without him, amongst the quirky inhabitants of Three Pines.  This village is populated by an odd assortment of people you might not expect to find in a small town.  Several painters of varied levels of fame, a famous poet, a retired black psychologist turned bookstore owner, and a gay couple running the bed and breakfast.  They are interesting and likable people, as is Gamache and his team of detectives (okay, except for one of the detectives, who is fascinating in her deep unpleasantness).

The frame of a mystery is an excuse for Louise Penny to tell some very human stories, and human stories are what I’m all about.  Chief Inspector Gamache believes the best way to solve a crime is by watching and listening to people, so you’ll get none of the intricate expositions of forensic science here.  What you’ll get instead is a wide array of characters giving voice to some incredible nuggets of wisdom and insight about life.

For example, Gamache tries to create a team of detectives who emphasize cooperation instead of the status quo of competition.  He tells a new member of his team (the one with fascinating levels of unpleasantness) that there are four sentences she should learn to say and mean: “I don’t know.”; “I need help.”; “I’m sorry.”; and then he forgets the fourth sentence with amusing consequences.  But those three sentences are some of the hardest things to say, and yet as Gamache suggests, some of the surest paths to wisdom if we say them with conviction.

The retired psychologist, Myrna, explains to Gamache why she retired from her practice.  Some of her patients, she felt, were just not trying, and Gamache responds:

“Surely though, some were trying.”
“Oh, yes.  But they were the ones who got better quite quickly.  Because they worked hard at it and genuinely wanted it.  The others said they wanted to get better, but I think, and this isn’t popular in psychology circles–“ here she leaned forward and whispered, conspiratorially–“I think many people love their problems.  Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.”

What an astute statement that seems to explain the difference between the people who gain wisdom from their experiences, and those who just hold tight to their problems with all their might.

One of the metaphors that becomes important in the last part of the book is the idea of the long house.  Gamache remembers someone telling him that life is like a long house.  You start at one end and move to the other, but you never leave that house, and neither do any of the people who were important in your life.  The bully from elementary school may be all the way at the other end of the long house when you’re 35, but it doesn’t mean he’s not still there.  It doesn’t mean you can’t still hear his voice yelling at you from the other end.

It’s an image that’s comforting and disturbing at the same time.  It’s nice to think that everyone is still with you, but it makes that long house seem awfully crowded.  And honestly, there are some people we’d very much like to leave behind.

Obviously, I’ll be following this series into the next book, which I’ve already got from the library.  I can’t wait to see what happens next to Gamache and the residents of Three Pines, but I also can’t wait to see what further wisdom and insight Louise Penny has to offer.

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