As you’ll see in Ms. Penny’s answers to our Crimesquad questionnaire, she has tried to write what is classed as a ‘cosy’. This may be what she set out to do, but instead we believe she has ended up with a beautifully crafted novel with a crime element. With Still Life, the author gets under the skin of all her characters and makes them come alive.
There is the quietly dangerous Gamache, who doesn’t miss a thing, yet gives nothing away. Then there is his subordinate in the form of Jean Guy Beauvoir, who appears more dynamic than Gamache. Agent Nichol often seemed to be playing out a fantasy rather than facing reality. It is to be hoped that these three appear in the next novel and develop further. Also, the tension between Clara and Peter is beautifully realised. These days, all good crime novels seem to be character driven and here Ms. Penny has achieved this superbly.
I really loved this book. It was really fresh with lots of understated vitality. I wouldn’t say the ending was a great surprise… but the journey there was a literary sight to behold. Gamache is certainly Quebec’s answer to Morse with a soupcon of Poirot. Definitely a winner.
Reviewed by: C.S.
Fresh Blood Questionnaire
1) What type of crime writing would you say you write?
I think of it as an update of the classic cosy with a dash of PD James and a soupcon of Alexander McCall Smith. Now it sounds like a cookbook. I’ve had a bit of misery trying to ‘type’ this book and my style. Every time I say it’s a cosy someone insists it’s far too realistic for that. And yet, I deliberately set about trying to write a cosy, for the modern age. That means complicated relationships, complex characters, the odd swear word. I write about love and friendship and quote John Donne and Abby Hoffman and many of my characters have some sort of faith, though not necessarily in religion. There’s this wonderful line from Auden that proved seminal in my life and that’s used in Still Life, “Goodness existed; that was the new knowledge. His terror had to blow itself quite out to let him see it.” Still Life is about terror, all the internal terror we bury alive and inevitably crawls out, stinking and wretched. But it’s also, mainly, about goodness.
2) What type of crime novel do you prefer? Series or standalone?
Series, Definitely. I’m a glutton for things I like. If one Dalziel is good, ten is better. Gimme. I adore getting to know the characters and crawling around in their personal lives. They become a little like friends. At first there’s a respectful, appreciative distance but with more exposure comes great affection.
3) Have you always had ideas to write a crime novel?
Well, I’ve had dreams of it. Always wanted to live in the country with a man I love and a couple of dogs, writing mysteries. Never thought it would happen. In fact, for a while I forgot about that dream and tried writing literary fiction but got myself stressed out to the point of writer’s block. That was dreadful. Very upsetting. When anyone asked how the book was going I’d smile and lie. Inside I was withering. But then we moved to the country and I discovered all these marvellous characters. The inspiration for two of the main characters in the book, Peter and Clara, are our two best friends out here, both artists. They allowed me to steal their lives and then twist them necessarily to fit a murder. The Peter person in particular was shocked by what happened, and I must say that was fun to see. But this is a village which knows sorrow and pettiness and jealousies and remorse and great joy and gladness and immense support for each other. And I suddenly realized I wanted to write about this, using my adored murder mysteries as a structure to tell their story.
4) What influenced you to write a crime novel in the first place?
It’s a structure that appeals to me. It allows for exploring all sorts of festering parts of ourselves, and our characters. It’s the most amazing form – you place a group of people in the middle of a personal catastrophe and see what they do. And one of them actually committed the act! Wonderful. Besides, it’s what I read. Almost every book in the stack by my bed and the fireplace is a mystery. While I was writhing with shame over writers block it suddenly came to me. Write what you read. The ‘you idiot’ was implied as it is with most things my internal voice says. So simple. Though not, of course, easy. It also seemed many great mystery writers, particularly the classics like Christie and Innes and Dorothy L., had a lovely sense of humour. There was a charm about their stories that I appreciate. When I’m sick or down I read a cosy mystery and feel better, or I’ll flip David Suchet on the DVD, get my tea and jelly beans and smile.
5) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
Josephine Tey “Daughter of Time”
6) Would you describe yourself as a Crime fan and if so, which authors do you most admire?
Well now, that’s an interesting question. I’m definitely a mystery fan, though not necessarily a crime fan. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Maybe someone can tell me what it is. I suspect it’s something to do with tone and form. I don’t read many procedurals or noirs. Blood and graphic sex in books leave me chilled. I read mysteries to escape, and if I actually happen to learn something that’s a wonderful, though unplanned, by-product. I figure the newspapers give me all the harsh reality I need. An odd reaction from a journalist, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because I was a journalist I’ve become jaded about the news and what it has to do with reality. But this is off topic. In terms of pleasure, I read and admire Reginald Hill, Margaret Yorke, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, PD James, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anne Perry, Ruth Rendell, Kay Mitchell and the amazing Alexander McCall Smith.
7) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel. Fantastic concept, very eerie – I loved the performances – all psychological and mannered and creepy.
8) Without giving away the ending, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
Is it cheating to say Sleuth? Perhaps it is, all right then, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. As you see, I’m a traditionalist.
9) The beginning of Still Life was runner-up for the Debut Dagger Award. How did it feel to do so well amongst so many entries?
I was frankly astonished. I danced around the house shrieking, the dogs barked, outside the Canada Geese were honking. It was pandemonium until my husband arrived to contain me, then he started bouncing around too. There were 800 entries world-wide and 14 of us were short-listed. I knew the real prize was getting invited to the Crime Writers Association Dagger Awards lunch in London and meeting all those writers, editors and agents. I had a wonderful time, tried not to throw up and sat next to Peter Lovesey at lunch. But I actually met the woman who was to become my agent, the redoubtable Teresa Chris, at a private Christmas Sale I didn’t really feel like going to a few days later. We were after the same shawl and started talking. Then when my sister-in-law and I left we almost ran Teresa over with the car. Not recommended for attracting agents, but Teresa seemed to like it.
10) What first gave you the inspiration for the plot of Still Life?
I was a journalist working in Quebec City and came across a village and an artist not unlike Miss Jane Neal, the victim in Still Life. That gave me one of the twists, but the tone of the book and the atmosphere was gleaned from our lives in the tiny Quebec village we now call home. It’s so lovely, so full of charm and small rivalries. In Still Life, beyond the murder, there is friendship and a gentleness and a hopefulness that permeates the lives of the villagers. Just as it does my life here. I wanted to try to convey that, and create a village most people would love to live in, with people they’d want as friends. Except, perhaps, the murderer, but then we all have our flaws. It was important to me to have a keen sense of place and belonging. And a sense of humour. The characters don’t take themselves too seriously.
11) In Still Life you describe the tension between the French speaking people and the English in Quebec. What made you want to put that in your novel?
Well, now, that’s the soft underbelly of Quebec – what makes it tender and protective and vibrant, and defensive and sometimes unreasonable. The linguistic and cultural tensions. It’s also our dark little secret – the thing most Quebecers don’t want to admit really exists in our society and in our hearts. We try to hide it, and patch over it, and deny it-but then something happens to shake our calm and oops, there it is, all covered in old accusations and recriminations and mutual suspicion. Most Quebecers, French and English, genuinely get along and intermarry and kids are now raised to be completely bi-lingual and bi-cultural – but there’s still a segment of this province that is just waiting to take advantage of a clumsy phrase or idiotic action. And some Quebecers, French and English have been raised in isolation, so their suspicions of the other are bred in the bone. I wanted to touch on that. It’s not a large part of the book, but some of the characters are uneasy and we see their external manners and their internal distrust. It’s interesting to me that you picked up on this. Not many people have and honestly it’s an area I struggled with a little. Part of me wanted the village of Three Pines to be totally idyllic, without connection to the woes of the larger, crueller, society. But ultimately I realized that wouldn’t be doing the village or its inhabitants a favour. They live in Quebec, with the great richness that marries both languages – and occasionally the great sorrow.
12) Where do you see crime fiction going next?
Really, I haven’t a clue. It’s so refreshing to have this
body of writers that dares to be so different – the procedurals,
the cosies, and the noirs. All seem to be thriving, and the quality of
work is astonishing. If I have any opinion it’s that the readers
are growing more and more sophisticated and demanding and I think depth
and multi-dimensional characters are becoming a must.