Summary from the publisher:
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators are called to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods on Thanksgiving morning. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in this holiday season.
Louise Penny is another one of those authors who constantly showed up in my recommendations queue, but that I took forever to get to. I finally picked up Still Life the first book in the Inspector Gamache series, on a cold Friday night after an exhausting week, when my only plan for the evening was to snuggle under the covers with a mystery that was perfectly atmospheric and full of character.
There’s a blurb on the back of the book from the New York Times book review that perfectly captures what I felt about this book:
“[Penny’s] deceptively simple style masks the complex patterns of a well-devised plot.”
Reading Still Life was like stepping into the world of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, where you think discovering the culprit is going to be fairly easy, especially because of the small setting, but, much like Murder on the Orient Express (I mean, how much smaller can you get than a train?), you don’t truly have an inkling until a major confrontation with the murderer occurs. Ms. Penny masterfully redirected my attention from one potential suspect to another so that the guilty party was very much a surprise, even though I realized in hindsight that I should have seen it. To me, that’s not a source of frustration, but the mark of a really good mystery.
Much like Still Life is a modern Agatha Christie mystery, Inspector Gamache is a modern Poirot who solves his cases by a combination of acute observation skills, a keen understanding of people, and the ability to admit when he’s wrong. Everyone who works with Gamache has a deep respect for him (except for a new trainee who Gamache tries to mentor, but who, in the end, is too full of her own convictions to actually benefit from his teachings), and you can see why. I was in awe of Gamache’s patience as he worked through the case and of his contentment with life outside of work, and I was glad to finally make his acquaintance.
If I was happy to meet Gamache, I was over the moon to discover Three Pines. Remember when I said I wanted atmosphere and character? Three Pines has an abundance of both, and Ms. Penny transported me to this quirky little village where everyone knows everyone, especially through the idioms and slices of Quebecois life that she sprinkled through the narrative (all clearly inspired by her own experience as a native of Montreal). And the citizens of Three Pines are just as charming as the place they reside. I fell in love with each of them and felt their pain at the loss of their beloved neighbor, and I desperately didn’t want the murderer to be a local, even though I knew it had to be.
I’m glad I had the presence of mind to have the second book in the series, A Fatal Grace, directly at hand, because Still Life ends with an eerie observation from Gamache:
“Life was far from harried here. But neither was it still.” (paperback, p. 312)
I hope this lack of stillness continues, because I can’t wait to delve deeper into the lives of Gamache and Three Pines.