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

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.

  1. August 22, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    I read the fifth in this series a brutal telling about five years a solid crime novel .I have watch this one thou it was made into a film with Nathaniel parker as the inspector which didn’t work for me as he was inspector lynley here just didn’t fit my image of Gamache

    Like

    • August 25, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      I’m curious about the rest of the series and I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

      I never understood why they cast Nathaniel Parker for Linley. Linley is BLOND. Very English blond. It’s all over E. George’s descriptions of him. I couldn’t watch the TV series because of him being so wrong for Linley and Barbara being too pretty compared to the character of the books. When I listened to her conference at Quais du Polar, E. George hinted that she wasn’t satisfied with the series.

      He doesn’t fit my image of Gamache either but he’s better for it than he is for Linley. Now I wonder who I’d choose to be Gamache…

      Like

      • August 29, 2015 at 6:33 pm

        Book 11 just came out here. I have some catching up to do..

        Like

  2. August 23, 2015 at 12:03 am

    Love the quote about the zucchini. And it is true, lol, except over here we have the nerve to just leave them on the porch.

    Like

    • August 25, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      Barbara Kingsolver reported something similar is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’m starting to believe it’s true.

      Just for you, here’s another quote mentioning zucchinis:

      Monarda was the zucchini of the flower world. It, too, figured prominently in the harvest market and, subsequently, the Thanksgiving bonfire, which would give off a hint of sweet bergamot so that it smelled as though every cottage in Three Pines was brewing Earl Grey tea.

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 25, 2015 at 10:55 pm

        Thanks, Emma. Odd because I don’t recall hearing any before – and now two – perhaps they are multiplying like the zuccs.

        Like

  3. August 23, 2015 at 6:36 am

    the whole series is wonderful. I’m actually listening to them, the narrator Ralph Cosham is fantastic. Alas he passed away

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    • August 25, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      You’re reading them in English, I presume. I want to check out the French translation. I’m so curious about how it sounds in Quebec-French.

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 26, 2015 at 3:41 pm

        yes let me know for the French, I’m indeed listening to the in English

        Like

  4. August 23, 2015 at 8:46 am

    I was about to ask whether this novel has been filmed as it sounds perfect for the Sunday evening slot on TV. Stu has answered my question, though. The sense of place comes through very clearly in your review.

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    • August 25, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      Sure, it’s good TV material but part of the flavor of the book isn’t in the plot, as often, but in all the little details, the description of the countryside in the early stage of autumn.

      Like

  5. August 23, 2015 at 9:50 am

    I’m really glad you liked it. I didn’t think it was cozy, though. The setting is, I agree, but you can feel something darker underneath. I’m not surprised that later books, as Stu mentions, get openly dark. I had to laugh when I saw on her website that she has a “how to pronounce words” section. (Or had – I haven’t visited in a long while). American readers regularly complain that she’s hard to read because of the many French words.

    Like

    • August 25, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Cozy or not cozy, you know I’m not good with book labels. Every book with a murder has a part of darkness.

      She has a “how to pronounce words” section? I need to see that. Yes she does! It’s so funny!

      There are less French words in her books than in Victorian literature. In her book, it feels right, not a way to show off knowledge of a foreign language. I did wonder about the lack of footnotes with translations/explanations. She also picked names rather difficult to pronounce for Anglophones:
      – Armand : R + an in the same word
      – Jean Guy Beauvoir
      – Reine-Marie : 2 Rs in a row
      I’m surprised there’s no Aurélien, as it’s quite hard to say as well.

      Sometimes seeing French words adapted in English is strange. I can’t get over “sautéd”: this English ending with a “d” after the French “é” looks so weird to me. I’m glad they kept “engaged” and didn’t start using “fiancéd” 🙂

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  6. August 23, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    I was wondering whether or not this would qualify as ‘cozy’ and so you answered that question.
    Still Life is a term that’s also used for art, and the French title doesn’t catch that at all. Is there a similar term in French art?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Still_life

    BTW many people seemed to find the television film version disappointing. I have yet to see it.

    Like

    • August 25, 2015 at 10:22 pm

      Nature morte is the exact equivalent of Still Life for art. I prefer the English expression, it’s less macabre.

      I don’t want to watch the TV version of this. I’d rather keep the images my mind conjured up. It’s like for Adamsberg or Linley: I don’t want to have an actor’s face plastered on the picture I have in mind.

      Like

  7. August 23, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Saw the term Nature Morte, and it doesn’t seem to do justice to the term Still Life at all (aside from the bookseller quote). Nature morte doesn’t seem to capture the same spirit of the things at all. Still Life seems to capture a moment of life (something still living) but the French term has a much more dismal turn to it.

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    • August 25, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      I totally agree with you.

      It’s something I’ve noticed between the French and the English languages: they use opposite terms in expressions or sentences. Here you have still life vs dead nature. An image of life suspended vs something dead.

      When you’re on trains and see warning, in French it’s written “Danger de mort” and in English, something about “life threat”. In one case, the projection is death and in the other, your life is threatened. It doesn’t convey the same thing.

      Like

  8. August 24, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    I liked the zucchini quote too. The title’s interesting, because while it clearly loses something I suspect it’s just one of those times where there isn’t a direct translation which captures the nuance of the original.

    Will you read the next one in the series?

    Like

    • August 25, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      There’s another zucchini quote in my answer to Dagny’s comment.

      This title is like “La place du mort” by Pascal Garnier. In this case, the French title has more nuances than the direct English translation “The Front Seat Passenger”.

      I will definitely read the next one. As soon as I can buy books again. It will be winter, it’s going to be a perfect time for this. 🙂

      Like

  9. August 25, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Great commentary as always Emma.

    This sounds both entertaining and, as you allude to, substantive.

    The examination of individual verses collective rights issue is the kind of stuff that I like to devour in a book.

    You have gotten me thinking about the different versions of French. My wife has relatives in both France and Quebec that she converses with. I must talk to her about the differences.

    Like

    • August 25, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      We love discussing the differences between French spoken in France and French spoken in Quebec. The main difference is that they try to avoid English words, so they won’t say “faire du shopping” but “magasiner”.

      Like

      • August 25, 2015 at 11:21 pm

        Years ago in French classes, I was told that French people avoided using English words. So that must have changed?

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        • August 30, 2015 at 8:48 pm

          It has changed and the internet and global marketing play a role in that change. When I was younger, film titles were always translated, it’s not the case anymore. We are more exposed to the English language and for me, it’s also a good thing. We have to improve and speak better English, it’s necessary in this world.

          French Canadians are more against using English words. They use “traversier” for “ferry” for example.

          Like

  10. August 31, 2015 at 9:34 am

    I’ll be heading to Quebec for the first time in my life in a few weeks, so your observations about French in France vs. Quebec and also the tensions/differences between anglophones and francophones are very interesting. I wish I had time to seek out Three Pines though…
    The series does get much darker, so I would agree it’s not typical cosy material, but what I love above all is that the author takes us into territories that really push the boundaries of conventional crime fiction, where the ‘mystery’ element becomes secondary.

    Like

    • August 31, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      I’d love to visit Quebec, maybe next year. I’m curious to see “Stop” signs with “Arrêt” instead of Stop and all these quirky French translations of English things.

      Like

  1. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm
  2. November 29, 2016 at 1:12 am
  3. December 23, 2016 at 4:35 pm

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