RHC 2019: Still Life by Louise Penny

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a cozy mystery.

I had lunch recently with my most faithful blog reader, who is also one of my progenitors, and the subject turned to writing – specifically an idea she’s kicking around (and Mom, tell me if you don’t want me talking about this on the internet!). I’m not going to go into details, but I can’t think of a creative property I’m more excited about than her project.

Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series was part of Mom’s inspiration. The same series had come up recently at the book club I facilitate at work, too, with the same superlatives attached. So, I figured the universe was sending me clear signals as to what my choice for this task would be.

And this was a ton of fun to read. It’s set in a small Canadian town peopled with wonderful characters, it’s funny, it’s engrossing, and I didn’t guess who the killer was until the reveal, which made me wonder why I hadn’t figured out. So all of my mystery satisfaction boxes were checked. I’m told that the first few books in the series are more about establishing characters and setting and that it really catches fire a little later on. If that’s the case, then those later books must be extremely good.

I’ve always been a little mystified by the idea of cozy mysteries. I never quite understood how something lighthearted could revolve around a murder. I’ve also sort of thought of them as textual Rube Goldberg machines, which is fine, but not really my own cup of tea (my tastes lean more toward character and setting depth than plot intricacy). This book cleared that up my misunderstandings for me, though, and I feel like I have a better grasp of the genre, and I won’t discount it quite as fast.

Still Life the murder of an older woman with a bow hunting arrow, which is pretty grim stuff. But it’s not a super grisly crime scene (one small wound, no sternum bone saw autopsy scenes or anything). While there is a lot of humor in the book, the characters do react with shock and grief to the death, and those emotions are sustained throughout the novel. But neither that emotional impact or the murder itself are the tonal focus, if that makes sense.

Instead, it’s all about delving into the life of a small town (where “the only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time”) and the way its fabric shifts in the wake of the murder. While there is a reasonably satisfying puzzle driving the action, I think the real strengths of the book are the character and setting that the mystery architecture supports.

I enjoyed this, and I’m glad it was recommended to me.

One thought on “RHC 2019: Still Life by Louise Penny

  1. “Textual Rube Goldberg machines” is well-put and extremely accurate. What I find remarkable about Penny’s first novel in the series is that it plants seeds that only come much later in other books. So not only was she plotting this novel, but she must have known she was going to write more than one. And she seeds her world with characters that I enjoyed seeing again and again, so she is developing a depth of characterization that you require. I mean, it’s not “Hamlet,” but it’s not “NCIS” either.

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