Louise Penny: Still Life (2005)

The discovery of a dead body in the woods on Thanksgiving Weekend brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his colleagues from the Surete du Quebec to a small village in the Eastern Townships. Gamache cannot understand why anyone would want to deliberately kill well-loved artist Jane Neal, especially any of the residents of Three Pines – a place so free from crime it doesn’t even have its own police force. But Gamache knows that evil is lurking somewhere behind the white picket fences and that, if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will start to give up its dark secrets…

Still Life by Canadian writer Louise Penny was a real discovery. There hasn’t been a start to a crime series since I’ve read the first of Peter Robinson’s Chief Inspector Ranks series that I enjoyed this much.

If I could I would move to Three Pines, the small fictional village, located a few hours from Montreal, in rural Québec. It’s a small village that sounds as if it was a place where time stands still and reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Old cottages face a small village center and are surrounded by old trees and lush gardens. The place is very green and picturesque, the descriptions of it atmospheric and full of tiny details of the season. It’s the end of autumn, dead leaves are falling, it rains and the temperature is slowly dropping. A storm will come and soon it will be winter. Before the crime is solved, snow will begin to fall and a lot of the investigation will have taken place in front of a cozy fire.

It’s hard to believe a crime could happen is such an idyllic setting but it does and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sureté du Québec and his team have to leave Montreal and try to find out what happened to Jane Neal. The old woman was found dead in the forest on the morning of Thanksgiving. It is the hunting season and Jane has been shot dead by an arrow. However bow, arrow and shooter are missing. Was it maybe no hunting accident?

Gamache and his team will have to stay in Three Pines for the duration of the investigation. They move into Olivier’s and Gabri’s B&B. The two men also own the local bistro which is known for its excellent food. The investigation introduces us to Jane Neal’s friends, a small but interesting community. The painters Clara and Peter, Myrna, a former psychologist who opened a book shop in Three Pines, Ben, the son of Timmer, one of Jane’s best friends, Ruth, a poet and many more.

While Still Life has at times the feel of a cozy, it’s more complex than the average novel of that genre. Chief Inspector Gamache is a kind, intelligent but strict and far from flawless man. It will be interesting to see how he will be portayed in the following books. His team is promising as well, his subordinate is a sort of son figure for him while there is a rookie character with whom he gets into one conflict after another. The novel is well constructed, moving on a steady pace and the crime isn’t solved too easily and very plausible.

I have never read a Canadian crime novel before and I was glad Louise Penny provided a lot of interesting information about Québec, the way the French and the English live together, the peculiarities of the region.

What I liked best apart from a wide range of  psychological insights are the well-drawn characters and the wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the place. That makes me wonder how the series will go on. It seems part two is set in Three Pines as well but the following parts are not.

If you like to immerse yourself in your crime novels and want them well constructed with detailed descriptions and some very appealing characters, you shouldn’t miss the start to this series. It’s great. And I love the cover.

41 thoughts on “Louise Penny: Still Life (2005)

  1. I’ve read 3 of Penny’s books and enjoyed them. Haven’t read this one, but I should get to it eventually. I’ve been reading them from the library, but may have to actually purchase some!

  2. I’m so glad you reviewed this! I have it to read (found a cheap copy) and had heard mixed messages about it since then. But your enthusiasm encourages me to pick it up soon.

    • It certainly depends on what you like when it comes to crime. I loved it for the setiing and the characters and it’s neither graphic nor too fast paced.I hope you’ll like it as well.

  3. I think that the genre of a book is not all that important. Be it Crime, “Canadian Crime,” science fiction, spy novel, etc. You indicate that this book is well written with complex characters. In a way that is all one really needed to know in order to have an idea if it is an appealing work. A book that has depth and is also cozy does sound very appealing.

    • I agree with you but I know people ususally like to know. The fact that this was a Canadian writer made a difference. I had no idea how much conflict there is between the French and the English. From her website I know that English speaking readers complained she used too many French words. I didn’t even notice.

      • I totally agree that you should discuss the genre in your review and commentary. It is just a general observation that often people, myself included, tend to rely on categorizations too much and therefore restrict ourselves to the familiar and often miss out on things that we otherwise would not miss.

        • We all have some preconceived ideas, I guess. I’m usually open when I do not know a genre but when I’ve read something and didn’t like I’m not so keen on giving that particular genre many more chances. Maybe I will miss out.
          On the other hand, since I’m blogging, when someone whose taste I know raves about a book I wouldn’t have picked up normally, I’m quite willing to give it a chance. There are great books in every genre, I think.

      • I would hear snippets about the trouble on the news but I haven’t delved too much into it. This seems like a good way to learn more and to have fun. We stayed in Montreal and its beautiful.

        • It’s not too explicit, you will not learn all that much but you get a good feeling for the situation and it’s a very entertaining book.
          I’d love to see Montreal.

    • Oh my…How did that happen. Thanks for telling me. It is Three Pines. I corrected it right away. I made a mix between the name of the author and the name of the village. How dorky 🙂 Three Pennies doesn’t sound idyllic….
      I’m glad you liked the sound of the book anyway. 🙂 I hope you will enjoy your trip to Three Pines!

  4. Sounds like a good read, Caroline. I too am intrigued about the relationship between the French and English, since Canada is our neighbor. I don’t know a lot about the separatist movement, but read that it got pretty violent in the 70s. There’s a good Canadian film about that, but I can’t think of the title right now.

    The cover is very striking.

    • Once you have more time.. It’s very good.
      I wasn’t aware of that or separatist movements but it’s logical. It happens in many countries where people of different languages live together. Switzerland is pretty unusual, it’s never happend here at all.
      I’ve read a few Canadian novelists, just never crime but funny enough they never touched this type of topic at all.

  5. I must be the only person at this party who’s not very fond of crime novels. The setting sounds lovely though, and it reminds me of some of Stephen King’s novels, like It or Needful Things, where there’s a lot more going on behind the closed doors of a small community.

    • That’s an interesting comparison. I’ve been meaning to read It for so long.
      I like crime stories but mostly I really read for the descriptions and the characterizations.

  6. I have this and am looking forward to reading it. I like it when an author can bring to life the setting–part of the reason I like international crime ficiton–to get the flavor of some other place! I’ll have to dig my copy out-though I am buried under books at the moment! 🙂

    • I think you might like this, I’ll be curious to know what you will make of it compared to other series. It’s a new favourite and I have already orderd the next one.
      Buried under books… It does sound familiar. 🙂

  7. I see she writes in English. It’s published by Actes Sud in France, excellent publisher.

    I realize it’s been a while since my last crime fiction book. I should try this one, I’m intrigued by the Quebec setting. We hear a lot about singers from Quebec here but not that much about writers.

    • I liked her very much, not sure if it would be too “nice” for you. I thought the setting has a special appeal. Btw I just got the second in the Nicci French series “Tuesday’s Gone”, only not sure when I will get time to read it.

  8. Nice review, Caroline! This looks like an interesting series. I loved this line from your review – “Before the crime is solved, snow will begin to fall and a lot of the investigation will have taken place in front of a cozy fire.” It makes me want to read the book.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I liked it so much, I’ve already bought the second but now I’m tied up with my readalongs… Yeah well.
      It has aterrifc atmosphere. I almost wished for winter.
      I hope you will like it, should you read it.

  9. I agree with you about the cover, it looks great.

    The story also sounds interesting, the kind I might like. You make me wonder about the characters and the place more than the crime…I know it sounds a bit unusual for a crime novel.

    • There really are huge differences from one crime novel to the next that’s why by now I think there are so mayn subcategories.
      But you are right, it is much more about the charcaters and the setting than the crime as such. It’s a nice change.

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