Still Life: Why Books are Better than TV


Still Life: A Three Pines Mystery (2013)

Directed by Peter Moss

Magnolia Pictures, 85 minutes, Not Rated



Are you disappointed when a book you loved is made into a TV show and what you see doesn’t match what’s in your head? One can’t really fault the script writer or director for that. After all, there’s no reason why anyone else would carry the same impressions as you. Still Life, though suffers from a major fault. The Peter Moss-directed version of Louise Penny’s first Armand Gamache novel sacrifices the very thing that has made her novels­–# 15 is due this fall–so beloved: strong characterization.  


The novel Still Life introduced us to Gamache and Three Pines, Québec; Still Life the TV show tries to cram all of the characters into 85 minutes, gets many of them wrong, and jettisons character depth in favor of solving a mystery. It’s bad choice; the mystery isn’t actually all that complex. I’m not sure if this Penny project went any further than the first book but let’s put it this way; if you tried to read Penny’s 293-page novel in 85 pages, you’d have to read 3.5 pages per minute and you’d miss a lot. (I’ve read books that fast written by some academics whose turgid prose would be masochism to read slowly, but novels are a different story!)


Here's a thumbnail of the storyline for those who’ve not read the novel. Seventy-eight-year-old Jane Neal, a retired school teacher, walks in the woods and is murdered. Who would kill such a harmless and well-loved individual? This brings Chief Inspector Gamache (Nathaniel Parker), the head of the homicide division in Québec, to the tranquil, close-knit, and hard-to-find village of Three Pines to investigate. He is accompanied by his right-hand man Jean-Guy Beauvoir (Anthony Lemke), efficient Agent Isabelle Lacoste (Judith Baribeau), and pouty, flippant Inspector Yvette Nicol (Susanna Fourrier). The mystery involves a shocked village, a close-to-the-margins family, three ill-behaving teens, a confession, unrequited love, Jane’s not-very-sad niece, art, and the creepy Hadley mansion.


We also meet a few of the Three Pines regulars: painter Clara Morrow (Kate Hewlett), Clara’s artist husband Peter (Gabriel Hogan), and aging poet Ruth Bardo (Deborah Grover). If you wonder about Olivier and Gabri, Myrna Landers, Dr. Harris, and Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, the term cameo applies. That can partly be explained by the need to elide to fit everything into 85 minutes, so I call no fouls on this. I will, though, assess technical fouls for numerous other transgressions, though Moss got Jean-Guy, Peter Morrow, Isabelle Lacoste and Yvette Nicol right, though Baribeau wasn’t on the screen very long.


Now for the misfires:


·      Kate Hewlett was too beautiful to play the part of Clara Morrow. At the very least they could have splattered her with paint and mussed her hair!

·      A smiling Ruth Bardo? No, no, no! She’s a tart-tongued, whiskey-mooching misanthrope who was often amusing, but seldom in a nice way. It takes numerous books to gain insight into why.

·      Myrna Landers is mere background in the show, but she’s played by the very attractive and shapely Patricia McKenzie. Penny’s Landers is a cornerstone of the village, runs the bookstore, and is kind, but her beauty is mostly internal, as she’s presented as obese. (I gather she’s even thinner in the new show. Shame!)

·      I’ve liked Nathaniel Parker in BBC productions and movies, but he’s miscast as Armand Gamache. He says some of the right things, but he lacks gravitas. Crinkly eyes alone don’t convey much. Mostly he’s a presence in the film around which the mystery unfolds, but we get little sense of his keen mind or commanding presence. Penny fashioned her fictional Gamache from Atticus Finch, her late husband (Michael Whitehead), and a Québec tailor whose surname she borrowed. For other reasons hard to articulate, I simply didn’t buy Parker as Armand.


I hasten to remind that my comments apply to the DVD version of a 2013 production. I’m not an Amazon Prime member, so I’ve not yet seen the latest attempt to bring Gamache to the small screen. I can only hope that the Alfred Molina-anchored series is stronger. If I do watch it, though, I think I’ll wait until Ms. Penny is done writing books.


Rob Weir





Peace is Compromise Not Conquest


Thoughts on Racism and Activism


College campuses are aflame with protests over conflict in the Middle East. Key phrase “in the Middle East.” Analogies are made to the anti-Vietnam War protests of my youth. These are specious for several reasons, the most obvious being that this war does not directly involve the United States. No Americans are engaged in fighting in any sort of official capacity.


Some would say the United States is directly involved as it sells weaponry to Israel. True enough; it has supported Israel since 1948 and, after three wars were launched by Muslim powers, began sending military aid after 1971. (Four more wars have occurred since then.) I’ve long argued that the United States shouldn’t be sending anyone military aid, but good luck convincing policymakers of that. For the record, the United States has also sent aid to Palestine since 1994–more than $40 billion through 2020. 


Another difference is that few anti-Vietnam protestors were under the illusion that the “Establishment,” as we called those holding police and political power, would turn the other cheek. I can’t recall anyone calling themselves “activists” or “revolutionaries” who anticipated anything other than rough treatment for acts of civil disobedience. They were willing to risk arrest, prison, and/or severe campus sanctions.  Message: If you need to feel “safe,” stay away from protests.


Protest can also damage your future. Ask Jane Fonda, who has never shaken the “Hanoi Jane” appellation she got from visiting the North Vietnamese frontlines during the Vietnam War. She has apologized many times, but the taint remains. How hard is it today to scour social media to identify “troublemakers?”  


Frankly, though, it was the Jane Fondas actively rooting for a U.S. defeat and those who draped themselves with North Vietnamese and Vietcong flags who many in the peace movement saw as obstacles to peace. They gave it a stink of anti-patriotism rather than challenging the nation to live up to stated ideals. Today’s keifa-wearing college protestors leave behind a stench of anti-Semitism , despite the occasional Jewish student standing in solidarity with them. The same is true for perceived anti-Islamophobia circling Israeli-flag wavers confronting pro-Palestinian chanters..


And here’s the big kicker: None of this will bring peace to the Middle East. Americans enculturated into a sports mindset view all issues as having a “winner” and a “loser.” There is nothing about the current conflict between Israel and Palestine that fits such reductionist thinking. An A versus B scenario yields either the status quo in harsher terms or the destruction of Israel. What, after all, is implied by an old slogan attributed to David Ben-Gurion (“No Palestinians, no problem.”) or to that of anti-Semitic demonstrators (“From the desert to the sea.”)?


Some might argue that divestment will “force” Israel to change. Don’t bet on it. Capital is amoral and Israel is not South Africa under apartheid. The GDP of Israel is $525 billion and it has $27.7 billion worth of annual investment. Palestine’s numbers pale in comparison: $19.1 billion and $3.7 million. If you think pressure will change this, explain why foreign investment in Israel has risen by 29% since its invasion of Gaza.


 An enduring peace will require compromise and admission of guilt on both sides. There are no “good guys” who can claim the high moral ground. Here is a short list of “hard” questions that are mere starting points for negotiation:


·      Why did Palestine reject statehood in 1947-48?

·      How can a bifurcated Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) survive when other attempts (West/East Pakistan, Cyprus, Azerbaijan/Nakhichevan/Nagorno, Lesotho) struggle?

·      Will Israel abandon West bank settlements?

·      What will be the fate of Jerusalem?

·      Why is Israel the only regional democracy?

·      How will Palestine atone for the murder of I,139 Israeli non-combatants and the taking of 250 hostages?

·      Will Palestine apologize for citizens who cheered 9/11?

·      Will Israel rebuild Gaza?

·      Will Palestine concede Israel’s right to exist? 

·      Will Palestine renounce terror?

·      Will Israel repudiate expansionism?

·      Is there a path to regional citizenship?


If any or all of this is resolved, it will take a long time and be hammered out by professional mediators and independent bodies that can sway major powers. It seems almost impossible to believe that Likud or Hamas can play any role whatsoever in the solution. Nor can clashing groups of college kids spurred on by manipulating elders and outside agitators do much more than bring home the war of hate.




Hither Page Didn't Grab Me



Hither Page: A Romance  (2019)

By Cat Sebastian

Self-published, 224 pages



I don't remember exactly how Hither Page came to me for review. I guess it was sent my way because I read a lot of mysteries and have a fondness for Agatha Christie's English mysteries with eccentric characters.


Hither Page has some amusing stuff in it and is diverting, but it also has features that irk me. A lot of people try to write like Agatha Christie but they are too often Christie simulacrum. It’s not as simple as mixing a few oddballs, a quaint English village, a murder or two, and befuddlement before revelation. I don't wish to accuse author Cat Sebastian of being a mere copycat, but I can understand how many readers could draw that conclusion.


There's another genre of writing and film-making that makes me impatient. I call it the striptease, a form of expression where it's very obvious early on that two characters are hot for each other and will end up in the sack. It doesn't really matter to me if the characters are straight, gay, animal, mineral, or vegetable, but when you can see it coming from a mile away you just want the characters to get on with it.


As Page and Sommers Book One, the novel introduces us to James Somers, a doctor who is squeamish around blood and violence, and Leo Page who does investigation work for an agency headed by Sir Alexander Templeton who is probably blackmailing Leo, who is gay at a time in which such activity is unlawful. As it turns Doctor Sommers has the same proclivities. There's a whole lot of eyeballing, obsessive thoughts, and suppressed urge in this novel, but there was absolutely no doubt that the two are going to become lovers. So get on with it already and cut to the mystery.


It takes place in an English village called Wychcomb Saint Mary immediately after World War II. It's a place full of gossips, cranks, loonies, and clueless rich people who could have been drawn from the Monty Python upper class twit of the year sketch. There is Colonel Armstrong and his handsome secretary Edward Norris, a lady killer by which I mean in the cad sense not the sanguinary. There is grumpy Marston, a name plucked from a Eugene O'Neill play, a nervous recluse who had been a POW during the war, drinks too much, and lives alone in a cottage in the woods. Daniel Griffiths is the local vicar and his wife Mary was probably once pretty but is now down-at-the-heels. Add Miss Edith Pickering, who hired a “daily woman” house-cleaner who pokes around where she's not supposed to. Mrs. Hoggett, the cleaning woman in question is our first corpse. She leaves £1000 to 15-year-old Wendy Smythe who befriended her, but where did a cleaning woman get that kind of money?


There's a lot of kind of back and forth in this novel. Apparently lots of people in Wychcomb hold grudges, so many that Colonel Armstrong rhetorically asks Page, “[H]ave you ever met a rich man somebody did not wish to kill?” (Ya’ think that might be foreshadowing?) There's a subplot of a missing drug Veronal, a barbital, that fits the theory that Mrs. Hoggett was dosed and pushed down the stairs, and an attempt on Leo's part to pass himself off as an architectural expert who is writing about the local church’s features. He is so obviously not a scholar that villagers see through him quicker than it takes to polish off a biscuit and a cup of tea. How about back stories about who is heir to the colonel's estate, meddling Home Office agents, and relatives who might be non-relatives.


Cat Sebastian has a husband and three children but according to her website likes to write “steamy, upbeat historical romances” usually with one or more LGBTQ+ characters. Meh! That's fine, but this is a very messy mystery and an extremely sappy love story. There's a second book but I think I shall duck it. And I know for certain that Agatha Christie remains on her throne.


Rob Weir