Friday, August 31, 2012

Dead Silence

Louise Penny’s Still Life is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read all year long. Damn it all, this book starts off so well!!! But the wheels fall off so abruptly in the final act, and we’re left with the most anticlimactic ending I’ve come across in a long time… probably the worst since Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body back in November of last year!!!

The quiet community of Three Pines is a small, peaceful village in rural Québec… and one morning, the community’s peace is shattered when Jane Neal is discovered dead, killed by an arrow. Was it an accident? Then why isn’t anyone coming forward? And where is the arrow? And for that matter, if it was murder, who could have done it? After all, Jane was well-liked by everyone. It sounds like a job for Chief Inspector Armand Gamache!

I have read two books in the Gamache series: The Murder Stone and Dead Cold. I really liked both of them. Both “impossible crime” novels, Penny showed a tremendous writing talent and also managed to fool me with her solution to the mystery in some way or another, particularly for The Murder Stone. I knew what to expect: a clever mystery with great characters and terrific writing. And for much of the book, I got just that.

And then, something happens. Somebody confesses to the murder of Jane Neal and allows the police to arrest him/her. But as any reader of mysteries knows, they couldn’t possibly be the killer… and suddenly the book takes a nosedive for the worse. Till that point, the book was rather flawed, but enjoyable. The finale erases all memory of that.

The culprit becomes blinkingly obvious very quickly, even though they have no real reason for having murdered Jane Neal! Oh, there is an attempt to create a motive, but it’s a weak one that left me very dissatisfied. The killer might as well have been convinced that they were murdering a rogue stapler, or a leprechaun named O’Doyle, or an alien from the planet Zoorg!!! What makes this worse is that every other suspecthas a legitimate, clever motive for potentially wanting to do away with an old friend!

But that’s just one of the stops on board the Cliché Train, which decides to stop at every station. When we find out just why a teenage character has been so angry lately, for instance, I just wanted to throw my copy of the book across the room and scream “No *bleep*ing way!!!” I can’t believe this was intended as a surprise! Several of these “surprises” are anything but: why Jane kept people out of her house, who the killer is, the ridiculously obvious symbolism of a playing card which is still explained to you, etc.

I usually have no problem with a Monologuing Villain—you know, the kind of loser who can’t just kill somebody, they have to explain why they’re doing it and how and how clever they’re being and how nobody will ever know. But this one bothered me. He’s a dull villain—though remember I use the pronoun “he” only out of convenience and it could easily be a “she”. More importantly, though, he suddenly undergoes a major character transformation just to serve the plot. Before the “shocking” twist, he seems like a nice guy, but once the twist is revealed and he starts on his speech, he turns into a Bond villain doing a Hannibal Lector impression. I was half-expecting him to unleash The Unnecessarily-Slow-Ticking Device of Death! There’s cleverly hiding a character’s true nature… and then there’s this.

Finally, there’s the book’s greatest failure: the most annoying character in the world, a police officer named Nichol. She’s the kind of person who can’t work well with others, doesn’t like or respect authority, and cannot take any advice. And at first she works well as a character. But after a point, I couldn’t stand her anymore. Here she was, getting plenty of hints that the problem wasn’t in others but in herself. In fact, at one point, she literally comes across something that tells her that to her face, directly! Instead, she manages to find a way to twist it against her boss, Gamache. It’s very funny the first time. It’s getting old by the second time. By the fifth or sixth time, I wanted to strangle the hag. Seriously, if somebody could be that stupid, I don’t want to know a thing about them. (Nichol resurfaces in Dead Cold, but is far less annoying and more believable.)

Then there’s the annoying way the book keeps switching viewpoints and times. We build up to a major emotional moment… and then we skip past it, only to have a character recall what happened. And, particularly at the beginning, the book has a very annoying habit of going into flashbacks—in fact, more than once we were in a flashback inside of a flashback! What is this— Flash-ception?

I realize I’m being very, very rough on this book, but it was so close!!! I know Louise Penny can do better than this. In fact, in her second book she already improved enormously, and I genuinely love The Murder Stone. Still Life comes across as cliché, with a badly concealed and blatantly manipulated mystery that left me very, very annoyed. I was expecting something interesting or clever—I got this. Honestly, readers are better off skipping this book and heading straight to the second in the series, Dead Cold. Even though I try to be lenient to a first mystery, the ending to this one is so frustratingly bad that it removes all memory of the enjoyment I had from the first two acts.

I guess we all have our off-days, and I suppose it being a first novel in a series, Louise Penny can be forgiven for trying to introduce characters, etc. Louise Penny isn’t done on this blog. I’ve already started on her newest Gamache novel, The Beautiful Mystery, which has started off excellently. I hope that the ending can live up to the beginning, though…

17 comments:

  1. You ought to change the title of your blog to "At the Scene of the Rant."

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    1. Or "The Armchair Ranter." :P

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    2. I hope you don't mean that in a bad way! This one really is more of a rant than anything else, but I was very disappointed by an author I usually love. Not much more to add.

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  2. Although I have yet to read this one by Louise Penny, I suspect there are many who would beg to differ with your conclusions. The book won the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada for Best First Novel. And Peter Lovesey said "What a joy it is to discover a detective like Armand Gamache: strong, calm and charismatic, and at work on a good mystery in a believable setting." It was runner-up in the Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger Award in 2004. To be fair, the number of positive assessments seem to far outnumber the negative ones you mention, so I don't think I am persuaded to pass this one by, Patrick.

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    1. JIM, honestly, Canada has very little high-profile stuff in the mystery world. Or anything, really-- much of our stuff is imported from the US. So when something Canadian proves to be very popular, it's guaranteed to win some Canadian awards.

      While I do think that the first 2/3 of the book were quite good, once the wheels fall off this turns into an ugly train wreck and I had trouble remembering why I liked the first 2/3 in the first place.

      I also approached this book as an established fan of Penny's, having loved both DEAD COLD and THE MURDER STONE. Compared to those two, this one has a pretty weak plot which is excessively padded and overwritten, and with a ridiculous villain who despite being obvious is blatantly manipulated to be a last-minute surprise.

      Yeah, the review is harsh, but I stand by it.

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    2. James Powell is a Canadian and I think he's good, if not entirely orthodox, but you have probably read my review from last week.

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  3. Well, we're on the same page with this one. I too was baffled by it's popularity - http://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/still-life-by-louise-penny/

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    1. I'm glad someone agrees with me-- I'm not insane after all! Or if I am, I'm not the only one.

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  4. I think Patrick should be commended for giving a forthright opinion that goes against the popular grain. It can be daunting to criticize a popular writer on a blog, because one hates to offend the devout fans.

    One narrative technique popular today that I have come to really dislike is the Weighty Prologue.

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    1. I have to agree with you, Curt-- unless the prologue is absolutely brilliant, I tend to get quite bored with it. Fred Vargas starts off with a terrific 'teaser' in SEEKING WHOM HE MAY DEVOUR, and Bill Pronzini had a terrific opening monologue in his Nameless Detective novel SCHEMERS. But those are the only two that pop into my head.

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  5. Not read anythign by Penny and obviously will steer clear of this one and go for the earlier funny ones instead! I was reminded, when you mentioned the tendency to switch from a dramatic moment to something else and catch up later, that this a technique that Carr used a hell of a lot and which, when he did it, I thought mostly worked exceptionally well to generate suspense. Loved the rant Patrick and given that you had previously enjoyed books by the same author I think I definitely understand your frustration as that has definitely happened to me plenty of times. U usually end up spending a huge amount of time just trying to figure what the author actually intended, rather than the sensible thing (which you did) which was to illuminate where the failure to communicate stems from. Thanks mate.

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    1. Hi Sergio,

      Thanks for commenting! Though I wouldn't categorize any of Penny's books as "funny". There are nice moments of comic relief here and there, even in her weak books, but they take themselves quite seriously. The best, IMO, is THE MURDER STONE, which has an excellently-concealed villain. But in my recent two reads of Penny's books, I've noticed an unfortunate tendency to... well, *over*write her books-- pad out a thin plot unnecessarily to the point where in her newest book she's quite literally cheating the reader, and yet her culprit is *still* laughably obvious!

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  6. Good review Patrick. I was encouraged to read this series by all the good reviews, but each of the three I have read get 3.5/5 on my scale - all for different reasons!
    Monica

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    1. That sounds like a fair score for DEAD COLD and THE MURDER STONE, but I'd give this one a 2.5 at best, and the newest book, THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, a 1.5... my reasons for this last one will be revealed soon enough, though!

      Personally, I sort of prefer the 4-star system though. There's far less choices than for the 5-star system and most of the time it just seems easier for me to decide whether a book really deserves 3 stars or, say, 2.5. Going by that scale, my rankings of Penny's books are:

      THE MURDER STONE: 3/4
      DEAD COLD: 3/4
      STILL LIFE: 2/4
      THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY: 1/4

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  7. Well written, and honestly the only negative I've ever read of her work. I am the only reader I know who doesn't like this series. I thought the first two were just okay, and then I didn't like the third at all and gave up. No one could convince me to pick it up again. I thought you made excellent points, and it isn't easy to buck a whole literary world who writes nothing but glowing praise. Popularity doesn't mean something is great. There are a zillion examples of this in books, music, everything. And I don't call it a 'rant.' I think this was a well-thought out piece of writing. Good job.

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    1. Hi Nan,

      Thanks for stopping by and for your words of encouragement! It really does a lot for morale to hear such a nice reaction to a review that was really very difficult to write... although my review of THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, to be published later this week, was even harder to write and even more negative than this one, though many of my main criticisms are very similar!

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  8. Would that be The Unnecessarily-Slow-Ticking Device of Death! With a Giant Red LED Readout?

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