Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is up with the best in Canadian crime fiction. The series debut, Still Life, is the winner of the New Blood Dagger, Arthur Ellis, Barry, Anthony, and Dilys awards.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montréal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a long-time resident of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more but Gamache smells something foul this holiday season…and is soon certain that Jane died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.
With this award-winning first novel, Louise Penny introduces an engaging hero in Inspector Gamache, who commands his forces—and this series—with power, ingenuity, and charm.
The real action in the novel begins on Thanksgiving Day in the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. Retired school teacher Jane Neal is taking a walk that morning when she’s killed by an arrow in what looks at first like a terrible bow-hunting accident. But it’s soon identified as a murder, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene. With him he brings his second-in-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir and newly-minted Agent Yvette Nichol. The three begin the task of looking for evidence, interviewing witnesses and trying to find out as much as they can about the victim.
It turns out that Jane Neal was a shy, but warm, generous and beloved person. There hardly seems to have been a reason for anyone to want her dead. But then, little hints emerge that suggest that some people in Three Pines have been keeping some secrets.
There are other local people, too, who are not telling everything they know. As Gamache and his team learn more about Jane Neal, Three Pines, and the town residents, they discover that quite a lot lies beneath the town’s peaceful surface. At one point, Gamache is speaking to a group of locals. He says, “We all have secrets, and before this is over I’ll know most of yours.”
There are several elements that stand out in Still Life. This is a police procedural, so one of the elements woven through the novel is the realistic investigation routine of collecting evidence and making sense of it, of interviewing witnesses and suspects, and of integrating forensics information. The investigators set up a “command post” in an unused building in Three Pines and from there, they collect all of the information they have and make sense of it. It’s a routine of odd hours and inconveniences, and Penny makes clear that finding answers in a police investigation involves a lot of hard work.
There’s also a strong element of character in the novel. Three Pines is a small “arty” town, so several of the characters who live there are at least a little eccentric. Even those who aren’t are unique and memorable, and it’s easy to see why a reader would be quite eager to “reunite” with them in another novel. For instance, there are Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, who own the local B & B and bistro. There are artists Clara and Peter Morrow, who were close friends of Jane’s. There’s also Ruth Kemp Zardo, an award-winning poet with a strong personality and a sharp wit. And there’s bookshop owner Myrna Landers. There are other characters, too and they make strong impressions because they’re “fleshed out” and all of them contribute to the story.
The character of Armand Gamache is also well-drawn. He’s devoted to his job, but he’s very much in love with his wife Reine-Marie. He’s a veteran investigator but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect. For example, he likes to mentor new members of the Sûreté and Beauvoir thinks his boss is too soft on newcomers. He’s by no means weak, but he doesn’t like heights. He’s got layers without being stereotypically “tortured by personal demons.”
There are several sub-plots woven into the novel, and these, too, add to it. For example, Yvette Nichol is a brand-new member of the Sûreté and out to “make her mark.” Gamache wants to help her learn the job and gives her several opportunities to do good work. She’s intelligent and makes solid observations; in fact, she provides more than one clue. But Nichol is smug and arrogant, and does not function well as a member of a team. She’s unwilling to listen and learn and at one point, after she bullies a suspect and ruins a promising interview, Gamache realises that she’s simply not going to co-operate and be a part of the team. For her part, Nichol believes that Gamache is “against her” because he’s jealous of her ability to do her job so well right from the beginning. Sadly, she doesn’t seem to learn much from the experience of working the case.
There’s humour in this novel, too. For instance, Ruth Zardo has a very prickly, often rude personality and a running “mock feud” with Olivier Brulé and Gabriel Dubeau. Here’s just a snippet of one verbal match when everyone’s visiting Clara and Peter one day: “‘Oh, great,’ said Ruth… ‘the village people.’‘
Bonjours mes amours,’ cried Gabri, waltzing into the room, ‘and Ruth.’…Olivier deposited…a couple of paper bags on the counter.‘
I was wrong,’ said Ruth. ‘It’s just a couple of old bags.’” A lot of other teasing goes on, too: “Clara ripped open the cellophane around the Lune Moons and gobbled one down, miraculously getting at least half of it in her mouth. The rest nestled on her face and in her hair. ‘Haven’t had one of these in years. Decades.’‘
And yet they’re so becoming,’ said Gabri, surveying Clara, who looked as though the POM bakery had exploded in her face.” It’s easy to see from this banter that this is a group of people who truly care about each other. In fact, the residents of Three Pines really are members of a close-knit community and are shaken and truly saddened when one of their own dies.
A realistic police procedural with a solid mystery, a group of memorable and interesting characters and a compelling small-town setting, Still Life has several plot threads and sub-plots, but they all tie together, and Penny adds welcome doses of humour to the story.
About Louise Penny:
Louise Penny was born in 1958, in Toronto, Cananda.
Many of her books are published under different titles by UK/Canada and US publishers.
She lives in a small village south of Montreal.