Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1) By: Louise Penny
4 out of 5 Stars
When the body of an elderly woman is discovered in the woods outside the idyllic hamlet of Three Pines, the first assumption is that this is the result of a tragic hunting accident. Unfortunately, in the world of mystery novels, nothing is ever as cut and dried as it seems.
”Still Life” is the first novel by Louise Penny. The book was published in 2007, and the twelfth book in the series will be published in August of this year. This should give you some indication of both the series’ success, and the work ethic of the author.
The book introduces the title character, Armand Gamache, a chief inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, as he seeks to solve a murder in a small village near Montreal. The village itself, and its eclectic denizens, becomes a character in the book, quirky and unique, always providing some background movement to draw the eye. The setting in a small village in the Canadian province of Quebec also adds interest, as Penny delves (a little bit) into the tensions, and friendships, between francophone and anglophone Québécois.
The supporting characters are also incredibly well done. From the strange and eccentric citizens of Three Pines, to the police officers tasked with solving the murder, each character is uniquely realized and speaks with a distinct voice. However, Penny tends to rely heavily on exposition to advance her characters in the story, rather than dialogue. Characters thought lines tend to spell out exactly how they are reacting to situations that arise in the book, rather than letting the subtext of their actions or dialogue advance the plot. The style is clunky and a bit disappointing, but hopefully can be chalked up to inexperience on the author’s part. (I certainly hope so, I started the second book in the series, A Fatal Grace, yesterday. I’ll keep you all posted)
The mystery itself is satisfying, red herrings and false flags abound. And while the clues to solving the mystery are there to be found, they don’t slap the reader in the face and scream “look at me!” This (I find) is a hard line for mystery writers to walk. Make the resolution too obscure, or the clues happen off screen, and the end is unsatisfying and feels tacked on. Telegraph the important stuff too loudly, and the mystery is solved by the read way too early, and takes a lot of the fun out of the read. Louise Penny does a great job sprinkling bits and pieces around, but blends them expertly into the background. It’s only when you go back and think about it that you put the pieces together.
In all, this is a satisfying “cozy-type” mystery, great for an afternoon’s read (and it is currently beach-reading season). The book is generally well written (barring the clunky exposition I mentioned earlier), and the characters engaging enough to encourage you to jump directly into the sequel. I also have to say that Penny captures the northeastern landscape in fall closely enough to cause some homesickness in this transplanted New Englander.