STILL LIFE by Louise Penny (McArthur & Company), 312 pages, $24.95 paper. Rating: NN Rating: NN
A small-town elder insanely private about her art finally decides to show some of it and winds up dead. It's a good premise for this debut mystery by Louise Penny. A little more suspense and some deeper character development and Penny could become a good crime writer.
The plot unfolds in two charming Quebec small towns, one of which has a decent art gallery, a high-end bistro and an old schoolhouse that serves as official headquarters for Inspector Gamache's investigation into Jane Neal's murder.
The suspects? A teenaged boy seen by the victim engaging in an anti-gay act of vandalizing the queer-owned bistro; Yolande, the greedy niece who could inherit the Neals' house; and a few jealous artists.
Penny knows her setting, and the characterizations are sometimes very good especially Jane's friend Clara and her relationship to her sometimes distant husband, Peter.
But she hasn't quite mastered the fundamental trick of mystery writing: how to maintain suspense even as the reader knows the case is going to be cracked. At no time do we ever worry that someone is in any real danger. A few more corpses or at least some more consistent menace within the narrative would have helped ratchet up the tension.
And Penny occasionally falls prey to clichés, especially in her portrait of Inspector Gamache. Does the genre real-ly need another suave, intelligent and charismatic senior police investigator?
Penny does move outside the box with her portrayal of the smug young female detective Nicole. But having taken the risk of creating an unlikeable character, the writer has to put her through something. It doesn't matter whether she softens up or further hardens as long as her character changes.