Still Life

still-lifeSo. This is going to be a difficult review to write. So many people I know are fond of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. Jenny even put this first book from the series on my list of books to read this year. But, oh dear, I hate to say it, but I was not fond of it at all. It kind of got on my nerves.

First, let me say that cozy mysteries are not my favorite. I often find the portrayal of small-town life to be overly cloying and sentimental, the people a little too quirky to believe. But as small-town cozy-type mysteries go, this one isn’t bad. I mean, of course, the gay couple runs the boutique and coffee shop. And of course there’s an old lady who likes to swing her cane around. But the characters of Three Pines, where the mystery takes place, are given some layers and allowed to be complex. It’s just that the two most interesting characters in the town are dead.

Second, I liked the idea of Chief Inspector Gamache. He’s not a boozy middle-aged man with woman problems. He’s a happily married man who enjoys good food. He is perhaps a bit of a snob, but not so much of a snob that he can’t appreciate the jolt of familiarity from cheap coffee when he’s going out on the job.

As for the mystery itself, it was fine, and the resolution was quite good. The crime is the death of Jane Neal, found dead, shot through with an arrow, just days after she’s had a painting accepted in the local art competition. Jane has painted her whole life, but she never let anyone see her work, so this is a big deal. And the work itself is mysterious—no one can agree on whether it’s good or terrible. (Not so different from books, I guess.) There are red herrings and misdirections, of course, and the ending is surprising but doesn’t appear to come out of nowhere. The wrap-up, where the community deals with the after-effects was handled especially well, taking seriously the problem of not just losing a fried but also discovering a killer in your midst.

All of that leaves us with a well-constructed example of a type of mystery that I don’t necessarily love but can enjoy from time to time. That might make this book a minor disappointment, but it’s nothing to be annoyed about. So what was the problem?

The main issue I had with this book—and it niggled at me like a bit of popcorn husk in the back of the throat—was the treatment the new trainee detective, Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her, she’s eager, perhaps a little over-eager, in fact, and obviously still learning how to work on a team. But Gamache’s second-in-command, Beauvoir, and, it seems, Gamache himself quickly write her off as totally incompetent. And so she proves to be, but given how the story was constructed, it’s hard not to read it as a self-fulfilling kind of prophesy. She’s clumsy in her communication and therefore treated with scorn which makes her all the more clumsy next time.

Gamache only once makes a serious effort at coaching her, and he flubs it without Nichol recognizing the flub. When she later—rather hilariously—repeats his flub back to him, he doesn’t understand. He later gets furious at her for not recognizing his mistake. And then there’s the time she presents what appears to be a strong case against one of the characters:

“Any holes in the theory?” Beauvoir asked the gather, trying not to sound hopeful. While he hoped Nichol would prove not a total liability, this was a disastrously good showing.

It’s possible that we’re meant to see Nichol’s situation as an example of how hard it is to do the job well and how the experienced establishment is always looking for the new person—or the new woman—to fail. But there’s not much in the narrative to support that reading. Nichol is incompetent, and she is given little mercy. But it’s hard to see how she could be any good unless she’s some kind of natural wuderkind, which might create a whole different set of problems.

The scenes with Nichol make up a relatively small portion of the book, so they might not be enough to bother readers who love all the other elements. Indeed, some readers might not be as annoyed by the treatment of Nichol as I was. Perhaps there’s something I missed that makes her colleagues’ behavior early on seem less unfair! But as it was, every scene with her ended up grating and turning me against people I think I was supposed to like. The rest of the book wasn’t good enough to get me past that, I’m sorry to say.

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17 Responses to Still Life

  1. Elle says:

    I think this is a surprisingly common problem with mystery writers, especially female mystery writers: what at least looks to the reader like a level of internalised misogyny that can be really hard to get past. (For some rather hilarious takedowns of this sort of thing, I recommend the blog Burning My Study, whose author Beatrice is always completely on the money about it: http://burningmystudy.blogspot.co.uk/)

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know that she was being misogynistic, given that the other women in the book were well-rounded, but the particular exchange I quoted seemed like exactly what misogyny would look like. And that ended up turning me off.

      • Elle says:

        Yup – it only takes one instance, doesn’t it! (I’ve heard people make similar objections to work by Ruth Rendell and PD James, too.)

  2. readerlane says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. I read it quite awhile ago, but I think the author’s intention with Yvette is a couple things. As I remember, Yvette is not much of a team player, and she is not good at taking feedback. But she is joining a team effort, and learning a new job you will both make mistakes and have to learn how to do the job better. This is a recurring theme through the series, and sometimes the new detective/member of the team is a woman and sometimes it is a man. I didn’t think it always came off in this book, which is my least favorite in the series. (My favorites are usually the ones set outside Three Pines ;)

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good point about Yvette’s not being a team player. I just wish that aspect of her character had been made more evident before the others on the team started thinking negatively of her.

  3. rohanmaitzen says:

    I have tried a few of Louise Penny’s mysteries (including this one) and just never been won over — which is practically un-Canadian for me to say! For me the sticking point has been that I think her prose is often really bad (heavy handed, portentous), though like you I’m also not a fan of the cozy. Ganache himself has definitely seemed like the series’ strength, but there are a lot of mystery series with a similar detective lead that I like better, so I figure I don’t need to put up with the stuff I don’t like for his sake.

    • Teresa says:

      The writing didn’t bother me, but it didn’t particularly impress me either. Every now and then, I ran up on a clunky phrase, but I wrote it off as first-novel syndrome. And I quite agree that there are too many good series out there to spend much time on one that isn’t working. I doubt I’ll come back to this, when there’s so much Ruth Rendell left to read, never mind that I’ve not even started Tana French!

  4. Christy says:

    Yvette Nichol was my least favorite part of the novel. I don’t remember necessarily thinking that she was being treated unfairly, but I just found her unbelievable as a character, especially in her obtuseness. I liked the novel overall though.

    • Teresa says:

      From looking at other reviews, she seems like a lot of people’s least favorite thing about the book. And I agree that the obtuseness seemed over the top–I started to resent Penny for making her that way, which is a weird reaction!

      • Christy says:

        Actually, yeah, I think I was resentful of the author a little too, because the character had seemed interesting from the outset. This has happened with some classic reads too – promising characters run off the stage by their authors in disgrace – Henry and Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park, for example.

  5. Jenny says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this! I have gone on to read several more in the series and to have mixed feelings about them. My feelings about Yvette Nichol (who shows up several more times) are that she’s meant to be a foil to Gamache, and as such she isn’t given the complexity of some of the other characters. But I haven’t read the entire series, and some characters I thought were never going to grow or change have done so. If you didn’t like this one, I don’t recommend you read more (it’s most definitely a flawed series, though — I think — enjoyable on the whole) but you should know that the characters are almost always given a fair shot.

    • Mary Beth says:

      I struggle with Yvette as well, but she continues to return in the series, and as Jenny says, is important for Gamache. She is a failure of his, repeatedly. Does that make his character less perfect? As the series evolves, she plays key roles, but never the inner circle. (Sorry for the spoiler.) I confess, I like the series (I also enjoy the cozy mystery genre – within reason), so this may lend towards more forgiveness of Penny. I just finished The Nature of the Beast (#11) and while I likes it, it wasn’t my favorite. How does Yvette compare to Lacoste for you?

      • Teresa says:

        For me, Lacoste didn’t really stand out from the other characters. I kept forgetting she was there, in fact! I do appreciate what you say about Yvette being Gamache’s failure. It’s something I kept coming back to–if she’s a trainee, what responsibility does he have to train her? She may be untrainable, but in this book, he scolded as much as he trained.

    • Teresa says:

      I think she would have worked better as a foil if she’d been given some real skills, like being a great detective but terrible at teamwork. I’d be willing to give another book a shot if it got considerably better–or if there weren’t so many other books I want to try!

  6. Rebecca says:

    The series is hit or miss for me, but I really liked the last 2 I read, Brutal Telling & Bury Your Dead. One plot is wrapped up in those two books, and the quirkiness of the characters and the Gamache-worship ease up a bit.I don’t read cozy stuff often, but every so often I’m in the mood for this series. If you’re in the mood for something grittier that takes place far north, the Rebecka Martinsson series by Asa Larsson is great, and it’s only 5 books.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for that suggestion! I’ve had mixed success with the Scandinavian crime that I’ve read (Mankell and Nesbo), but they’ve been closer to what I enjoy. Neither totally hooked me, but I liked them enough to want to keep trying.

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