Set in a quaint Quebecois village, Louise Penny’s Still Life narrates the murder and murder investigation of the beloved town resident, Jane Neal. Of the books I’ve read so far in “Spies and Detectives,” Still Life most closely aligns with what I’ve always imagined as a classic “whodunnit”: the gradual introduction of a cast of characters and their possible motives, the inclusion of red herrings, and a measured and generous chief investigator. To the mix Still Life adds the sub-plots of negotiating queer identity in a small town, young people struggling to find self-acceptance and self-worth, and the assurance offered by a good cup of tea. Okay, not really a good cup of tea, but rather, the tensions of French-English loyalties in (rural) Quebec.
I enjoyed the book a great deal for its mystery – trying to work out the killer, putting the book down so I could puzzle out new clues and then reading oh-so-rapidly so that I might find out who really did it, the surprise and delight of an ending I hadn’t expected, but still believed – but I also enjoyed it for its unabashed Canadian setting. The chief inspector drinks Tim Hortons coffee, the townspeople debate Quebecois language laws, the second in command argues against the displacement of indigenous people from the Montreal area, even Margaret Atwood has a (dubious) cameo! I like these things not simply because I’m a Canadianphile, but because they contributed to a convincing setting both in time and place, that allowed the crime, the townspeople, and the investigators to read not as characters easily cut-out of yet another mystery novel, but as products and contributors of a singular set of circumstances. No surprise then that Penny’s novels – Still Life is the first in what is now the “Inspector Gamache” series – are as wildly popular as any Canadian mystery series can be said to be wildly popular. If it’s any confirmation of worth, I’m planning to read another in the series come January.