The last book I read in the mystery genre was The Happy Hollisters. Or maybe it was The Bobbsey Twins. If you recognize those titles, you know what I mean. I was 8, or 9 or maybe 10. I discovered a wonderful new concept when my parents purchased a book subscription for me and each month in the mail I received a new one! It was like Christmas every month.
So when Still Life, by Louise Penny, was recommended at my book group one evening, I listened politely and said to myself, well just because it's a book group choice doesn't mean I have to read it. That's the thing about my book group. You don't have to read the book.
Then one day, my mind short-circuited by grief, I decided to give "Still Life" a try. Something light and entertaining, not too gruesome. And then for awhile, Louise Penny was all that I could read.
Now I'm sure that an author's highest compliment is NOT that she got a grieving widow through her first year of anguish and turmoil. But that is my testimony to Louise. With much thanks.
There is so much to love about her mysteries. One day as my mind became more able to focus I reflected on Three Pines, the small village in Quebec that is the setting for all of her Inspector Gamache mysteries. Ahhh, I thought. Such a great archetype for the safe place that I would love to call home. A tiny remote village (mysterious in it's absence on the map); a small community of like-minded but quirky friends who all "get" and accept each others' faults and defaults, gifts and contributions. A lovely B&B with a bistro that serves up the likes of "a mug of hot soup with a warm roll stuffed with ham, melting brie and a few leaves of arugula," while a fire crackles in the fireplace banked by cozy arm chairs. Yes please.
And from that safe place Penny weaves, not only an engaging mystery, but also a story filled with so many things that I love: literary references, psychological perspective, inspirational adages, spiritual perspective, humor, grace, humility, forgiveness. Each story woven through with a special insight that I can take away and chew on. She makes me see myself with humor and compassion.
Still Life, it seems to me, is an invitation to that safe place inside of us where we can begin to integrate aspects of our self, to take our own journeys of self-discovery. Perhaps that's because I am in that stage of life right now. Her main character, Inspector Gamache, introduces his philosophy as a crime detective to his new recruits with the scripture from Matthew 10:36 "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."
In one scene a new recruit happens upon a mirror with the a note attached that says "you're looking at the problem."
At another point Gamache reflects on an "analogy someone told him years ago. Living our lives was like living in a long house. We entered as babies at one end, and we exited when your time came. And in between we moved through this one, great, long room. Everyone we ever met, and every thought and action lived in that room with us. Until we made peace with the less agreeable parts of our past they'd continue to heckle us from way down the long house. And sometimes the really loud, obnoxious ones told us what to do, directing our actions even years later." That is Louise Penny's gift. This invitation to make peace.
No sooner had I closed the back cover of Still Life and opened the introduction to Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel did I read an introduction by William Gay, author of The Long Home. Coincidence?
The literary references, poetry, art, philosophy, spirituality, are all like little gems that delight me as I am reading. The mystery carries me along. The characters are lovely archetypes of aspects of self. I don't want to ruin it for you. If you read it you'll want to discover your own little treasures, as that is the delight of reading her books. But here's a few archetypes I enjoyed.
Three Pines as a wonderful place of safety and security where a person could be themselves in a beloved community. "Beyond that, there was no crime. No break-ins, no vandalism, no assaults. There weren't even any police in Three Pines. Every now and then Robert Lemieux with the local Surete would drive around the Commons, just to show the colors, but there was no need...Three Pines wasn't on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road. Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in this valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once, usually found their way back." And yet, the safety is breached by a murder that must be solved. If we are going to do the work, we are going to find something frightening.
Inspector Gamache as the compassionate detective, leading the charge of discovery about that which makes us horrified. About life, about our world, about others, and worst of all, about ourselves. As Penney describes him, though, "His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him." Keeping a tender heart is to not let the shock of truth make us jaded or cynical. Such an important aspect of healing.
Inspector Gamache, who also believes that "We choose our thoughts. We choose our perceptions. We choose our attitudes. We may not think so. We may not believe it, but we do. I absolutely know we do. I've seen enough evidence, time after time, tragedy after tragedy. Triumph after triumph. It's about choice."
Inspector Gamache who also quotes John Donne "When thou hast done, thou has not done, for I have more." And Abby Hoffman, "We should all eat what we kill. That would put an end to war."
Clara, the sensitive artist, "found it easy to forgive most things in most people. Too easy, her husband Peter often warned. But Clara had her own little secret. She didn't really let go of everything. Most things, yes. But some she secretly held and hugged and would visit in moments when she needed to be comforted by the unkindness of others." What we hide from other's needn't be hidden from ourselves.
Clara, who acts from her tender compassionate place when her friends suffered. "Clara rose with exaggerated calm. She took Jane in her arms and felt the old body creak back into place. Then she said a little prayer of thanks to the gods that give grace. The grace to cry and the grace to watch."
Clara, who wanted to keep her loved one's safe, who we all want inside ourselves and in our lives. "Most mornings Clara would wake up and watch while he slept, and want to crawl inside his skin and wrap herself around his heart and keep him safe.......Clara was his centre and all that was good and healthy and happy about him. When he looked at her he didn't see the wild, untamable hair, the billowing frocks, the Dollar-rama store horn-rimmed spectacles. No. He saw his safe harbor."
Ruth Zardo, the voice that we all want to use, but instead filter. Ruth the crazy aging poet, unable to mask the stinging truth.
You were a moth
brushing against my cheek
in the dark.
I killed you,
you were only a moth,
with no sting.
Myrna, the retired psychologist, showing us the limits of analysis, and the power of comfort. Myrna, who quotes Oscar Wilde with " there's no sin except stupidity."
Myrna who weaves her observations into wisdom. "His theory is that life is loss. Loss of parents, loss of loves, loss of jobs. So we have to find a higher meaning in our lives than these things and people. Otherwise we'll lose ourselves."
"I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he'd come with the same complaints, "Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It's not my fault." For three years I'd been making suggestions and for three years he'd done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn't changing because he didn't want to. He had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him."
Myrna, with whom I would take issue. If only it were simply that people didn't change because they didn't want to. I believe there are many people who desperately want to change and who struggle with a host of limits and road blocks. Sometimes the only change possible is acceptance of what is.
And there's much more. She packs an awful lot into these little gems. I even feel a bit smug that maybe I know her references to books she invents for the story. Loss, by Brother Albert Mailloux at LaPorte sounds a lot like Henri Nouwen and L'Arche.
If you've read this far, thanks. I believe Louise Penny just finished the sixteenth book in the Inspector Gamache series, so I'll be exploring more of them. Should you decide to embark on the adventure of self-discovery with her, I'd love to hear about the little gems that you find.