Just a Still Life, a Delightful Mystery by J. Ivanel Johnson

The Bottom Line: Warm up the apple crisp and cozy up to a detective mystery that has been 75 years in the making.

It’s the fall of 1971 in New Brunswick, Canada, and inspector Philip Steele is trying to shake off the stench of burnout and cases that haunt him to this day. He has given his resignation and desperately wants to swear off police work for good. But great cops always get pulled back in, and accordingly, he’s coerced to stay on by the Deputy Commissioner who was a respected and dear friend of his father.

So, with a new relocation from grittier Ontario to the smaller town of Fredericton, Philip decides to take some much-needed time off and visit his godmother, Polly Jane Whistler, in the nearby village of Victoria.

Philip has been checked out emotionally for some time. He lost his fiancée years ago in a shooting, and is now grappling with his mother’s recent passing and the sale of the family farm that had been in existence for five generations. But Polly Jane, who runs the quaint town post office out of the front of her house, is determined to help resuscitate him and put an end to Philip’s bachelor ways.

Everything is supposed to be peaceful in Victoria, where Philip is ensconced in Polly’s house of chintz, gingham, stained glass and comfort food. But Philip’s holiday takes a sharp turn when first the local bank is robbed and soon after, a boy is shot. Before long, a string of shocking events will rock the town and thrust Philip squarely into the case — vacation be damned.

Johnson’s writing is richly descriptive and has a distinctive vintage-y flavor that is as soothing as Polly Jane’s apple crisp. The story starts with a deliberate, slower build as Johnson paints a rich picture of the townspeople and its requisite characters and gossip, as well as Philip’s personal angst. But if it occasionally feels like some of the dialogue is out of place for the early ‘70s, there’s a good reason for that:  The book was begun over 75 years ago by Johnson’s grandmother, Victoria Ivanel Johnson. She penned the first draft idea for Still Life in 1948 as a manuscript titled Prison is a Private Place. She had a rebellious spirit, but loved the arts and spent her days pounding out short stories, novels and plays. The book’s delightful legacy alone is reason enough to pick up this equally engaging detective novel.

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