September Book a Month: Still Life

StillLifeAs part of Bas Bleu’s 2014 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions about the featured work—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. You may use the questions to reflect back on each book once you’ve finished it or to guide you as you read. Either way, we hope these features will enrich your reading experience. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

Picturesque small town filled with hidden secrets? Check. Thoughtful yet charismatic detective? Check. Rich cast of supporting characters? Double check. We know you bluestockings love a good mystery novel, and September’s feature, Still Life, is one of Bas Bleu’s recent favorites. And not just because both Chief Inspecter Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his creator, novelist Louise Penny, have an eye for subtlety that many contemporary whodunits are sorely lacking. With its clever plotting and carefully disguised trail of clues, Still Life kept us guessing until the very end!

1. At the beginning of Still Life, we are told that “violent death still surprised” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Why is that odd for a homicide detective, and how does it influence his work? What are his strengths and his weaknesses?

2. The village of Three Pines is not on any map, and when Gamache and Agent Nicole first arrive there, they see “the inevitable paradox. An old stone mill sat beside a pond, the mid‐morning sun warming its fieldstones. Around it the maples and birches and wild cherry trees held their fragile leaves, like thousands of happy hands waving to them on arrival. And police cars. The snakes in Eden.” Can you find other echoes of Paradise in Three Pines, and what role do snakes—real or metaphorical—play there?

3. There are three main couples in the book: Clara and Peter, Olivier and Gabri, and Gamache and Reine‐Marie. How would you characterize each of these relationships?

4. Gamache says “I’ve never met anyone uniformly kind and good,” yet no one has anything bad to say about Jane—except regarding her art. What is your impression of that art? How do you understand the game Jane used to play with Yolande and the Queen of Hearts?

5. When the charred arrowhead is found in his home, it is said that Matthew Croft “had finally been hurt beyond poetry.” How does poetry help him and other characters in this novel? Does it ever have the power to hurt? What do you think of Timmer Hadley’s idea that “there’s something about Ruth Zardo, something bitter, that resents happiness in others, and needs to ruin it. That’s probably what makes her a great poet, she knows what it is to suffer.”

6. Consider Gamache’s advice to Nichol: “Life is choice. All day, everyday. Who we talk to, where we sit, what we say, how we say it. And our lives become defined by our choices. It’s as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful.” Similarly, Myrna stopped practicing psychology because she lost patience with people who lead “still” lives, “waiting for someone to save them….The fault lies with us, and only us. It’s not fate, not genetics, not bad luck, and it’s definitely not Mom and Dad. Ultimately it’s us and our choices.” How do their choices affect the principal characters in the novel? Do any of their choices remind you of ones you have made in your own life?

7. Who do you think Gamache has in mind when he tells Gabri and Olivier: “You’re not the types to do murder. I wish I could say the same for everyone here.”

8. Clara has “very specific tastes” in murder mysteries: “Most of them were British and all were of the village cozy variety.” Do you see Still Life as a typical “cozy”? Why or why not?

One thought on “September Book a Month: Still Life

  1. I was late to the game of Louise Penny; I started with The Beautiful Mystery. I really need to go back to Still Life and get the full flavor of the whole story. While each book is it’s own mystery, I think it would help to understand the characters’ stories along the way.

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