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‘Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table,’

August 22, 2015 32 comments

Still Life by Louise Penny. (2005) French title: Nature morte. Translated into Quebec French by Michel Saint-Germain.

In the twenty-five years she’d lived in Three Pines she’d never, ever heard of a crime. The only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time.

I bought Penny_Still_LifeStill Life by Louise Penny after reading Caroline’s review here and it’s been on my TBR since 2012. Then Louise Penny was signing books at Quais du Polar this year and it reminded me I needed to get to her book soon and it fit nicely in my #TBR20 project.

Still Life is cozy crime fiction of the good sort, the kind you’d want to take on a long flight to forget you’re squeezed in coach or one you’d save to read it curled up on the sofa by a nice fire on a cold and foggy winter day. It is also the first volume of a series featuring Armand Gamache, Chef de la Sûreté du Quebec.

Now the plot. The sweet old lady Jane Neal is found dead in the bucolic village of Three Pines, located a couple of hours from Montreal. She was killed in the woods by an arrow. It’s hunting time and the first question is: is it a hunting accident or a murder?

Jane was well respected in her village and almost everyone was fond of her. She was a bit eccentric: she loved painting but never wanted anyone to see her art and she also never let anyone past her kitchen in her house. Jane gets killed just after one of her paintings had been chosen for a local art exhibition, Arts Williamsburg but before the list of the selected artists was announced officially. Jane’s work raised controversy and the committee picking artists for the show. Does this event have something to do with her sudden death?

Her death strikes her friend Clara Morrow really hard as Jane was like a surrogate mother to her. Clara is a struggling artist, married to Peter, a painter whose art is rather highly priced but who doesn’t paint fast enough to make a decent living out of it. Clara and Peter were on the committee who approved of the painting for the art show and they were also hosting a diner with their friends the day the choice was made and only two days before Jane’s death. If it is a murder, is the murderer someone from the village?

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is in charge of the investigation and starts digging around, chatting with the villagers, Jane’s friends, settling an office in the old station, sleeping at the local B&B. His approach relies on science and evidences, observation and understanding of human nature. He’s perfectly aware that his investigation will play havoc with the villagers. The questions he asks will unearth secrets, including some that aren’t relevant for the investigation, they will make people look at each other differently. Gamache sticks to his principles, tries to see the best in his team and is committed to coaching rookies. This first volume starts to explore the characters of the police team: Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s second in command, Yvette Nichol, the rookie and Isabelle Lacoste, experienced but not as much as Beauvoir. It’s going to be nice to see how Louise Penny will develop them, especially Nichol and Gamache. Readers who like Thomas Pitt, the policeman in Anne Perry’s books will like Armand Gamache and vice-versa. The two men could be cousins.

Penny_nature_morteBeside the plot and the investigation, I enjoyed Still Life for Penny’s style, the setting in Quebec and her observations on human nature and on her country. Louise Penny is Canadian and anglophone. She writes in English and her books were translated in Quebec French before being available in France. I have the original version, though. At Quais du Polar, she explained that the French publisher Actes Sud kept the Quebec French translation instead of re-working it into French. Hearing that, I almost regretted to have the English version, just to have the pleasure of reading a book set in Quebec, in French from Montreal and not from Paris. In the end, the English version proved to be a delight with all the French words included in the text to give back the Quebec atmosphere. It enforces the sense of place and it works well like in these short examples:

Nichol waved toward the back seat while negotiating Blvd St Denis to the autoroute which would take them over the Champlain Bridge and into the countryside.

Or

Clara and Myrna stood in line at the buffet table, balancing mugs of steaming French Canadian pea soup and plates with warm rolls from the boulangerie.

The vocabulary sometimes gave me a lovely impression of outdated times. Chef de la Sûreté (Chief Inspector) propelled me to the Ancien Régime and police under Louis XV. The French-speaking characters had rather old-fashioned names like Armand, Reine-Marie or Yvette.

I wonder what Louise Penny thinks of the title of the French translation, Nature morte. I guess she discussed it with her translator. Still life is a genre of painting and since painting is in the center of the plot, it makes sense. And in French, when you discuss painting, a still life is a nature morte. However, in English, still life conveys another meaning, if you put aside the reference to painting and it is explained in the book by Myrna, the local bookseller.

I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.’ Myrna leaned back again in her chair and took a long breath. ‘Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting.’ ‘Waiting for what?’ ‘Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. The thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.’

Nature morte (literally “dead nature”) doesn’t convey this meaning at all as this expression is attached to painting and nothing else. So part of the depth of the title is lost in French. Honestly, I don’t know what else the title could have been, though. 

The investigation and the description of Three Pines and its inhabitants are combined with thoughts about the relationship between anglophones and francophones in Quebec. Some anglophones characters say they feel out of place sometimes. I don’t know if it’s true but it intrigued me. I also thought that the following observation…

It was, reflected Gamache, one of the fundamental differences between anglophone and francophone Quebecers; the English believed in individual rights and the French felt they had to protect collective rights. Protect their language and culture.

…seems relevant for France as well. The protection of collective rights is the source of social security and collective pension schemes. Indeed, in France, you don’t pay for your own pension plan, you pay for the people who are retired now and the next generation will pay for you. We also want to protect our language, our way-of-life and our vision of the world.

In other words, Still Life is a solid cozy mystery with more depth than a book by Agatha Christie. It mulls over the impact of a police investigation on a community and lets the reader see glimpses of the society it is set in. Recommended.

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