Publication Year: 2007
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1
Format: Hardback from Library
WHY?: Introduced to me by a good friend when exchanging mystery recommendations.
SYNOPSIS: The quaint Canadian town of Three Pines is rocked when one of its most well-loved and seemingly innocuous citizens is found dead in the woods, shot with an arrow. Was it a hunting accident or something more sinister? Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec brings his team to the sleepy town to find out. He immediately spots that it is a special place but he also suspects it is hiding some secrets that may have led to murder.
I think it's in our DNA that we all long and are looking for community; a tribe we can bond with, which has our backs when things are rough, and accepts us for who we are. Still Life is "just" a mystery, first in a series in fact, but Louise Penny does such a brilliant job capturing this idea and she writes a community that I for one would jump at the chance to be a part of. The town itself is tucked into a beautiful slice of nature and is made up of quaint cottages with well tended but slightly messy gardens. Among the residents are the brilliant but "starving" artist couple, the former big city therapist who fled to run an overflowing cozy bookstore with a fireplace, the middle aged son of the deceased matriarch of the town who doesn't have to do anything but be good-natured, the gay couple who runs the B&B and a gourmet restaurant/French bakery and the spinster lady who is everyone's best friend and a secret artist. For sure, the characters are all a bit stereotypical but Louise Penny does a good job of giving most of them an inner life and complexity so they don't feel too pastiche.
Of course this is a murder mystery so Penny sets out to undermine and surprise the community; show it for the human constructed thing it is. Thankfully because Chief Inspector Gamache in charge, with his calm and rather zen-like confidence and compassion, the community emerges relatively unscathed if not stronger. Gamache is a a fantastic lead detective and I immediately liked him. He's smart and observant and his life is pretty well in order, unlike many of the police detectives that show up in mysteries today. He's a great perspective character but one of the strengths of the book was that the perspective is handed off to some of the other citizens of the town which gives the whole story, and the characters, depth. I found the characters as a rule fantastic and interesting with a couple of exceptions where Penny seemed to go a little overboard; for example a newbie police woman who was so socially illiterate it was a little unbelievable. Not that people like her don't exist but that she somehow got through her training to be a police officer and got assigned to what has to be a coveted post.
The tone of the book was difficult to categorize. It borders on the cozy and has an easy, clever humor throughout. There is also the fact that many of the characters, at least in outline, fit the quirky villagers trope that is often found in a cozy. I think a cozy mystery lover would, in fact, like this book but it takes it up a notch by giving its characters and the community a deeper feel of reality, however idyllic, that a cozy lacks. It was an unusual and well written atmosphere and I really loved it.
It wasn't all perfect of course. I guessed the murderer very early on and the reveal and motive is a little underwhelming. Also, I kept getting a little distracted by the police's dithering about whether it was an accident or a murder when, DUH!, you're in a murder mystery so of COURSE it was murder :0). I realize that allowing that to distract me is more my problem than the book's but there you have it. In some ways, the book was less about the mystery and more about the lives of these people and community and I was totally down with that.
FINAL VERDICT: A well crafted and highly enjoyable exploration of community and oh yeah there's quite a fun murder investigation thrown into the mix! Great characters and a unique voice in the mystery genre. 4 out of 5 Stars.