It's pretty impressive that Louise Penny's Still Life (2005), the first in a series of eight Armand Gamache mysteries, garnered five awards (CWA's New Blood Dagger, The Arthur Ellis Award, The Barry Award, The Anthony Award, and The Dilys Award). Impressive, but after finishing it, not surprising. It's an interesting cross between a cozy mystery and a slightly darker crime novel. I've noticed with Canadian fiction that it often feels vaguely familiar yet still foreign enough to make me feel that I am well outside my normal surroundings, which is what I love so much about reading. Crime novels are especially good for this as settings often seem to be particularly vivid.
In Still Life Louise Penny has created a quirky cast of characters in an idyllic setting with an engaging detective. Three Pines is a small rural village south of Montreal where it's hard to imagine anything really bad happening, let alone murder. When Jane Neal is found dead it's assumed she's the victim of a hunting accident. The Sunday before Thanksgiving "Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist." Only days previously a painting by Jane had been accepted into a prestigious local art show. A happy surprise for Jane since the judges were divided as to whether it was a work of true genius or embarrassingly bad.
Every year hunters manage to shoot some hapless victim--a beloved pet, a horse or a cow, or worse--occasionally each other. And surely that is what happened to Jane Neal. She was simply walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, since it's unthinkable an act of violence would be perpetrated against her. For Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec, even after so many years with the department, violent death still surprised him. Despite signs that this was simply an accident, there's enough evidence to investigate further and determine just what happened to Jane in the woods that fateful Sunday morning.
The residents of Three Pines are shocked and stunned. A small, close-knit community, Jane had a wide circle of friends. A former school teacher and much loved, she had to corral all her nerve to submit a piece of her artwork to the show. Emboldened by the judges' acceptance she had just invited her friends to a gathering at her home, one that would take place beyond simply the kitchen. It was to be a rare occasion, as Jane had never invited anyone inside her home further than the warmth of her kitchen. For Jane's friends little was thought of this oddity, but for Gamache and his detectives it's more than curiosity that makes them wonder why Jane kept everyone out.
Every village has its secrets. And Jane had hers. Enough to see her dead. When it comes to murder there is always a bit of darkness lurking below the surface. Three Pines, however, is an inviting place. Imagine rural Quebec in autumn. The leaves on the trees turning bright red and yellow, the air cool and crisp, the smells of Thanksgiving dinner wafting in the air. Croissants, brioche, steaming cups of soup and crusty bread. Don't read this book on an empty stomach--you'll find yourself wishing you could sit with Jane's friends at the local bistro with a hot cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Of course never far from mind is the fact that Jane was killed with a bow and arrow, deadly enough to slice straight through her heart. And any number of the village's residents had the ability to handle just such a weapon.
As detectives go Inspector Gamache is a breath of fresh air. Not at all clichéd. He's quite unique really as he's a sensitive yet sensible soul. Happily married he discusses his cases with Reine-Marie--it wouldn't occur to him not to share such an important aspect of his life and work with his wife. He's in his mid-fifties, maybe a little bit paunchy but always simply and elegantly attired. He has the look about him of country squire. You'd think so many years as a policeman would make him cynical, but he more often tends towards empathy both towards the residents of Three Pines and the two detectives he works with. Inspector Beauvoir is a longtime associate and almost a son to Gamache. Agent Nichol, newly promoted, has a chip on her shoulder, however. The three make for interesting dynamics, since Beauvoir is knowledgeable and experienced, and Nichol appears cocky and abrasive. Gamache is nothing but fair and tries to mentor those below him, but even his patience is tried by Agent Nichol.
There's a bit of humor thrown in the story as well, but it's tempered by the complexity of the mystery. And there are a fair few red herrings, too. Just when things seem to be coming together, Penny throws a few unexpecteds at the reader. She obviously has just the right balance going between characters, setting, and the unraveling of the crime. It's an inviting formula, though perhaps formula isn't the right word as that makes the story sound manufactured. And Still Life is both welcoming and engaging and not always what you expect.
Can she manage it again for the next book, A Fatal Grace? I will be finding out soon, I hope. Still Life is doing double duty since it is part of my mystery reading extravaganza as well as the last book for this year's Canadian Reading Challenge, which is rapidly coming to an end. I'll be joining the next round of the challenge July 1, and my first book is going to be L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. And of course I've got a pile of mysteries I'm (still) working on. But Louise Penny is definitely on my list of authors to keep reading--I've already got A Fatal Grace sitting by my bedside.