Still Life

still lifeMy 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.

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18 Responses to Still Life

  1. Deb says:

    Yes, please read them in order: characters appear and reappear and change–it’s best to come armed with some previous knowledge (although Penny does a good job of catching up readers who aren’t familiar with the various previous storylines). These are some of my favorite contemporary mysteries.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m glad to hear we get to see some of these characters again, as I enjoyed them all. I’m looking forward to more of their stories.

  2. marcia lengnick says:

    YES!! Am always happy when one more person becomes attached to Gamache and his beloved town of Three Pines. Great mysteries for a cozy winter’s eve and I’m slightly jealous thiking that you have 8 more titles to look forward to!!

    • Jenny says:

      I worry that Three Pines doesn’t have enough in the way of crime to offer… but if Midsomer has 13+ seasons of murders, surely Three Pines will suffice!

  3. Lisa says:

    I had much the same experience with Still Life. It was frustrating to finish in late one evening, when the bookstores were closed & I couldn’t get to the next book immediately. I fell hard for Armand Gamache – and Mme Gamache as well. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Louise Penny speak at Murder by the Book here in Houston, where the staff have campaigned for her books from the first. She has a lovely blog, and a newsletter, if you’re inclined to follow writers.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks so much for this, Lisa! I did enjoy this first one thoroughly and will probably read several more over Christmas, if I can bag them from the library. Very enjoyable stuff.

  4. jenclair says:

    This is one of my favorite series! The characters and setting make you want to settle in to the Village of Three Pines and visit with the friends you’ve made there.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that the characters, even minor ones, were so well drawn that it made the entire book more appealing. That’s definitely not always the case (though Laurie King does it very well.)

  5. Jeane says:

    I don’t read mysteries so I had no idea that they often focus on food? that’s funny. Why?

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know why mysteries have such a tendency to do this (and, say, science fiction does not.) Children’s books also do this — I can remember many memorable meals and feasts from my childhood favorites. But mysteries? Maybe because it is a genre that traditionally reassures us by setting the disorderly in order, and a good meal does the same? The recent gritty police procedurals unsettle us by providing only sandwiches and alcohol, so that supports my theory…

  6. Laura J. Bloxham says:

    I envy your binge over Christmas.

  7. A new series is a thing of joy – one for my list. Re food and books, one of the more interesting examples of this is Len Deighton (OK, espionage not crime, but…) who was writing a cooking column (in cartoons) for a UK newspaper then hit the big time with The Ipcress File. One can see exactly where his interest in food in his books came from!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, how funny. I’ve never read anything by Len Deighton (I don’t think) but my dad had lots of his novels lying around when I was a kid. I should pick up The IPCRESS File and see how I like it!

  8. Laurie C says:

    I fell in love with these books right away, too, but I listen to them all on audio because Ralph Cosham is amazing. He really IS Armand Gamache for me. I gave my husband a copy of Still Life last year for Christmas but it’s still sitting on his bedside table unread. Now that he works from home, he doesn’t read mysteries on his commute anymore, but it’s sad, because I just know he will love Still Life once he starts it!

  9. JaneGS says:

    I read and enjoyed Still Life a couple of years ago, and have the 2nd book in the series (I read in order too!) and mean to read it shortly. You express so well what I enjoyed about the book–interesting note about witnessing the grief of the victim’s friends/family. Also, I appreciated your comment on the effectiveness of the contrast between the two detectives.

    Good review.

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