Life is anything but still

By Ande Jacobson

Still Life is Louise Penny’s first Chief Inspector Gamache story from 2005. Armand Gamache is a Chief Inspector from the Sûreté du Québec in Montreal who gets called to investigate a suspicious death in a small village not too far away. This is both Penny’s first novel and the first book in her long series of beloved detective stories. While the mystery in this story unfolds in the fictional village of Three Pines, it has been hypothesized that the location is based on Penny’s hometown of Knowlton in Southern Québec. Still Life was first written in English and has since been translated into multiple languages. In the English version, Penny sprinkles bits of French into the description and the dialog on occasion given where the story takes place. Fortunately, a knowledge of French isn’t necessary to fully enjoy the book.

Penny draws vivid characters who delight readers with their quaint observations and local quirks and customs. Her stories are thought of as gentler crime novels with very little violence and no sex which makes them far different from most of the aggressive stories that are so pervasive these days. These stories are instead built through character studies and relationships as Penny focuses on the human and humane interactions.

Gamache is very senior serving as a mentor and is a keen observer of the human condition. His deputy is Jean Guy Beauvoir, a man who is eager to please his superior though he’s not above reveling in finding something, anything that Gamache may have missed. Sometimes his eagerness causes him to misstep. Gamache is also very much in love with his wife of 30 years, Reine-Marie. He shares everything with her including his cases, something that often annoys Beauvoir.

Along for the ride is Agent Yvette Nichol, a young detective with a lot to learn. Unfortunately, Nichol rubs a lot of people the wrong way with her smug manner. She’s smart, and in truth her observations prove critical to the case eventually, but she sometimes forgets the first rules of investigation which are to watch and listen. She tends to jump ahead and form her own conclusions based on partial information. Gamache tries to mentor her, but she resists his tutelage. Beauvoir takes an instant dislike to her, though that seems in part a thinly veiled lack of confidence on his part. He feels threatened by her intelligence and fears losing his privileged position with his mentor.

Agent Isabelle Lacoste is a key member of Gamache’s investigative team, and one of the brightest. She’s the techie analyzing the reports from the coroner and forensics.

This village is heavy on the arts, and several artists are in the mix. The villagers are mostly long-time residents, all with some skeletons in their closets, though on the surface, they are mostly friendly and helpful. There are also a few who can’t get along with anyone.

Jane Neal, was a retired teacher and an artist. Two days before Thanksgiving, she was excited that she had just landed a painting in the upcoming art festival for the first time ever. She was sharing an early Thanksgiving dinner with several friends gleefully describing her painting after finding out it was accepted. Unfortunately, two days later on Thanksgiving Sunday, she was found dead in the woods, ostensibly the victim of an unfortunate hunting accident. She was well-liked by most in the village and was a font of historical knowledge within the community.

Clara and Peter Morrow lived next door to Jane, and they were close friends. Clara and Peter are also artists, Peter the more prolific and successful of the two. Clara is quirky and as yet unknown for her works. They have a comfortable life and know everyone in town.

Olivier Brulé and Gabriel (Gabri) Dubeau run the bistro and B&B in town. In the bistro, everything is tagged for sale, and there are some lovely antiques in the mix. They are a couple and are generally accepted by the village, but there was an incident shortly before that fateful Sunday when some local boys assaulted the bistro flinging manure while shouting anti-gay epithets at Olivier. Jane saw the commotion and called out the boys by name chasing them off.

Ben Hadley is a somewhat spoiled rich boy whose mother recently died leaving him her estate. He too is an artist, and a good one. He’s generally friendly, and he’s close to the Morrows being a childhood chum of Peter’s and an apparent friend to Clara.

Ruth Zardo is older and a bit of a curmudgeon. She and Jane were long-time friends with a dark skeleton yet to be uncovered. Ruth is a truth teller, or at least that’s her excuse for being abrasive.

Matthew and Suzanne Croft are harder to read. They are helpful, but they are also a little cagey. Their son Philippe is a troubled teenager, though it’s not exactly clear why. Matthew and Suzanne are accomplished hunters with bow and arrow, and they are part of the town’s archery club as are a few others, including Ben.

Finally, there is Yolande Fontaine, her husband André Malenfant, and their son Bernard. Yolande is Jane’s niece, and she’s the most disagreeable and phony person in town. They are all about status and wealth, and she takes particular glee in insulting Clara, likely because of Clara’s friendship with her aunt. Bernard is also a handful, and he tends to terrorize the other boys in town such that they don’t dare cross him.

These along with a number of other villagers lay the groundwork for a tale of long-held secrets that are threatening to come out and complicate lives. Through the course of the investigation, readers learn much about the village history and about the various relationships in town. There are parents and children. There are animal lovers. There is beauty in the surroundings. And there are unexpected dangers lurking nearby.

It’s refreshing to read a crime novel where gore and violence aren’t the focus. The puzzles matter. The relationships between people shift, and alliances and confidences come to light. All the while, Gamache listens to what the people are saying. He watches their actions and notes when words and actions tell different stories. He takes a meandering path through the evidence, and even gets himself in trouble with his superiors at one point. Still, it’s clear that Gamache is the one who can pull the case together with some insightful help from the town and his team.

All in all, this is a charming story, and fortunately there are 17 more in the Gamache series (so far).

Still Life, by Louise Penny

A Good Reed Review also gratefully accepts donations via PayPal to help defray the costs of maintaining this site without creating paywalls.
Donate with PayPal



One thought on “Life is anything but still

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.