My friend Laura has been recommending Louise Penny’s series of mysteries to me for some time. She thought I’d enjoy them for a variety of reasons — the writing, the thoughtfulness, and even the lovely setting near Montreal. When I was in the library the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I remembered her recommendation, but I figured the library wouldn’t have the first one (and yes, I always read series in order.) I wandered over to see if I could find out what the first one was, so I could request it. Lo and behold, the only one in the stacks was Still Life, the very first Armand Gamache mystery — and it takes place at Thanksgiving! (Canadian Thanksgiving, but what’s a harvest festival between friends?) It was obviously meant to be.
Friends, it was meant to be. I read this debut novel in about a day and a half, barely wanting to put it down for meals. In it, we are presented with a small, rural town, and the death of an elderly woman everyone liked, someone whose intense privacy about her art was about to change. Who could have been threatened by that, enough to shoot her with an old-fashioned bow and arrow?
A simple enough mystery, right? Well, that’s what you think. Inspector Gamache’s intelligence, compassion, and keen observation are enough to show the complexities of human nature, in both the quick and the dead. This well-written, interesting mystery is often funny, often touching, and doesn’t caricature its subjects (for a change.) It has its darkness — it’s one of the rare mysteries that allows us to see the grief of the friends and relatives of the victim — but it’s not despairing or gritty. One of my favorite storylines has to do with a trainee detective who blames others for her mistakes and bad luck. We get to compare her behavior to Gamache’s; this device is revealing of both characters, and it’s a clever introduction to our hero. It tells us quietly that this series will be more about relationships and possibilities than about breakdowns at the end of the line.
There are other really fun things about this book, too. Some mysteries are too food-heavy for my taste — as if the author would rather have written a cookbook than a mystery — but this one was perfect. Occasional references to excellent meals (not that anyone has to do much convincing to make me think that French-Quebecois food is terrific), or to perfect sandwiches, but not enough to slow down the plot. Just enough to make me hungry. Or the brief side discussions about politics — also quite authentic. Enough to be realistic, but not enough to bog anything down. This sharpened my enjoyment of the entire setting, which was already lively enough.
I put this novel down feeling as if I’d found a new favorite mystery author — and Laura assures me that they keep getting better! If I don’t binge on them all over Christmas, I’ll be lucky, because there will be some left for the New Year.