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Still Life    by Louise Penny order for
Still Life
by Louise Penny
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Louise Penny's debut novel introduces a very enjoyable new police detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is a welcome change from the typical brooding loner of the genre, usually divorced, estranged from family and often a heavy drinker. Instead, the Chief Inspector has been happily married for many years, is a kind and decent man, and a bit of a philosopher. Even better, he has a nicely ironic sense of humor.

At the start of Still Life, we meet the budding detective, young Yvette Nichol. Gamache decides to take her under his wing as he has many other young detectives. However, Nichol is an outsider from an immigrant family in Montreal, and is both insecure and arrogant. Watching the development of their prickly mentor/student relationship is engrossing and surprising, especially as the competitive Nichol seems to be tone deaf to the effects of her behavior on her colleagues.

The mystery takes place in Three Pines, an Anglophone village populated by a set of fascinating people. Peter and Clara Morrow are both painters (he more succesful than she), who have a long-term, supportive marriage. Peter's closest friend, Ben Hadley, is also an artist, dominated by his difficult mother until her recent death.

Other villagers include Olivier and Gabri, the gay couple who own the local bed and breakfast and sell antiques, and Ruth, an eminent poet who expresses her sour, unhappy life outlook in her work. Rounding out the core group is Myrna, the sole black resident, who owns the local bookstore after leaving her Montreal counseling practice when she tired of annoying clients who never made any progress. Although this cast may sound like the clichéd group of locals, they are all brought to life in Penny's skilled hands.

Gamache, Nichol and the rest of the Sûreté homicide crew are called to the village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships, southeast of Montreal after a well-loved elderly lady, Jane Neal, is found dead, with a wound from a bow and arrow. Although it is the fall hunting season, things just don't seem to add up to Gamache and the others. Neal died just two days after her painting, Fair Day, was accepted for the local art show, and she invited her group of friends to her house for a celebration after the show's opening. Although Neal had a close circle of friends, she had never before allowed them into her home.

Gamache and his team investigate Neal's suspicious death, including the possibility that the apparent heir, her very unpleasant niece Yolande, is responsible. Gamache is an insightful man with an understanding of human motivations, but progress is slow. He grows to like the village and the people, feeling it was 'too bad than one of them was a murderer'. At the same time, Clara Morrow, who had both a friend and mother/daughter relationship with the victim, tries to lessen her grief by also looking into Neal's death. Watching Gamache and the intuitive Clara work makes for a highly readable mystery.

Three Pines does not have much sense of place and could be any rural village. However, in this case we learn that while the picturesque, artistic village is semmingly peaceful on the surface, appearances are deceiving. 'Life was far from harried here. But neither was it still.'

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