Discussing “Still Life”

Is a mystery always only a mystery, or can it be a work of literary fiction?

This is the question the Adult Reading Round Table Literary Fiction Discussion Group addressed earlier this year by taking a close look at Louise Penny’s first Chief Inspector Gamache mystery novel, Still Life (published in 2005).  Note that I referred to the book as a “mystery novel.”  The publisher dubbed the book (on its cover) “a novel,” while critics called it a “mystery.”  Catalogers agreed with the critics and placed it in the “mystery” category, rather than in “general fiction.”

Whichever it is, one quality about the book (and the subsequent series of Gamache adventures) seems certain — readers love Ms. Penny’s work.  (Still Life won multiple literary awards when it first came out.)  Some of the participants in the group were encountering the intrepid Canadian detective for the first time, while others had read all the books in the series and were delighted with the assignment to reread Still Life.  As one group member commented, “I find these stories so soothing, and I love to go back to them, even though I know what’s going to happen.  Curling up after work with a glass of wine and reading about the residents of Three Pines and their troubled relationships — there’s nothing better!”

The discussion group felt that while the book was extremely well written, with a number of complex, interesting characters and a strong sense of place, it probably didn’t meet the stiff qualifications of “literary fiction.”  There were complaints about the themes being “too obvious” — perhaps with literary fiction, there’s a requirement for more complexity, more layers of meaning.  A comment was made that a reader new to the series should approach the books in order, because the author provides new information about the characters with each additional installment.  It’s fun to learn more about these people as you go along, to see how they grow and change (or don’t, in some cases).  One reader said the verbal interplay between Gamache and his female assistant, Nichol, reminded her of the querulous relationship between Elizabeth George’s creations,  Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.

There was also discussion about whether Still Life (set in a tiny Quebec town south of Montreal) could be considered a “cozy.”  Some of the book’s characteristics seemed to fit the definition, but others cut against that label, specifically the homosexual relationship between the B & B owners and the ribald humor they use in bantering with each other as well as with a mean-tempered female poet who frequents their establishment.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries now number seven, the latest of which is called A Trick of the Light.  It was published last year.  However, I’ve recently learned that a new title, The Beautiful Mystery, will be coming out soon.  The series has been recorded by an excellent reader, Ralph Cosham, and many fans  enjoy listening to the books every bit as much as reading them.  What makes them especially compelling are the characters, the residents of this small, remote village, and the many sides to their personalities — how they support each other or clash in dramatic, surprising ways.  It’s quite a feat to keep readers (and talkers) wanting more of the same dish, again and again, but when it’s this delicately prepared and exquisitely served, it’s not difficult to understand why.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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