Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Penny's Still Life wobbles on second reading

This is the second time I’ve read Still Life by Louise Penny. It wasn’t intentional. When I moved the book onto the Books-To-Be-Read-Soon pile, I didn’t realize I’d read the book previously. I’ve read all of Penny’s recent books, but was certain that I’d had not read her first three or four.

It was only after I was a few chapters into the book that I began to experience déjà vu.  So I delved into my archives and, yes, I first read Still Life in July, 2010.  

I’ve read hundreds of books since then so I think my oversight is understandable.

Penny’s books fall within a sub-genre of the mystery genre. She writes cozies — mysteries in which the crime and its detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. (Sex and violence are downplayed, too, and often treated humorously.)

Penny’s books (with one exception) are set in the Canadian village of Three Pines. The village is a short distant from the U.S. border and doesn’t show up on any map.

Most, if not all, the familiar ingredients from Penny’s recent books surface in Still Life. There’s the murder of a townsman.  Inspector Armand Gamache, chief of homicide for Sûréte du Québec is called to the scene. (Eventually he just moves to Three Pines.)

The cast of characters — Penny’s villagers for the most part — appear from book to book. They are archetypes: the gay men who operate the local bistro, marvelous cooks who collect and sell antiques; the retired psychologist who runs a bookstore; the cranky, old woman poet; the artist who is superbly talent, but misunderstood.

The formula has propelled Penny into the front ranks of mystery writers. She’s a bestselling author with a loyal following.

But the formula is turning stale.  It’s odd such a feeling would surface after reading her first book, but it all feels recycled I thought, Oh, she’s doing it again, only to realize she was doing it for the first time. It’s only in the next book and the next that she does, indeed, do it again and again and again.

I also have a quibble with a particular incident in Still Life.  Gamache is imparting four rules, which guide his professional and personal life, to a fledgling agent of the Sûréte. He learned the rules from his supervisor at the beginning of his career.

In relaying the four rules, Gamache forgets the fourth. I forgot, he says.  The trainee misunderstands Gamache. She thinks when he says, I forgot, that this is the fourth rule.  Her misunderstanding is used against her later in the novel.

Here’s my problem: Gamache is not going to forget a single one of his four rules. He learned them early and has followed them throughout his career. He imparts them to each new agent he takes under his wing. He just isn’t going to forget something this meaningful to him. He’s not

It’s a cheap trick on Penny’s part, and I like the book less because of it.

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking, Colum McCann
27. Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley

Books read -- March
28. Still Life, Louise Penny

Currently  Reading --
Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman
Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer
Golden State, Ben H. Winters

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