“But one of the first lessons the Chief had taught Beauvoir when he’d joined the famed homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec was that to catch a killer they didn’t move forward. They moved back. Into the past. That was where the crime began, where the killer began. Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, had lodged inside the murderer. And he’d begun to fester.” –The Brutal Telling
Still Life by Louise Penny begins in the late autumn in the snowy woods outside the tiny village of Three Pines in Quebec. It’s deer-hunting season and apparently a hunter has accidentally shot elderly Jane Neal, a beloved former schoolteacher and quietly aspiring folk artist, through the heart with an arrow. But something about the death does not look accidental and Quebec’s homicide squad, led by Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, are called in. So begins Penny’s Three Pines mystery series, the 8th book of which was published this last summer.
At the center of the series is Armand Gamache, who runs against almost every literary detective stereotype. The aloof genius, the cynical and dysfunctional lifetime cop, the go-it-alone fast-talking gumshoe—these are what we have come to expect. So we, like many characters in the books, are surprised to find that Gamache is so understanding, so kind, humanistic and, well, happy. He is more like a wise grandfather than a tracker of murderers. But Penny’s wonderful writing shows us exactly how he can be brilliant as both. Specifically, his greatest investigative strength is his understanding of human emotions and his ability to patiently listen to all the witnesses and suspects. I would not be surprised to find that Penny exhibits these qualities herself, as she is able to get inside the head and heart of every single character she introduces.
Unlike other mysteries, the cops and the bad guys are not the only main characters here. All the townspeople—from the friends of the victim to the owners of the B & B where the police officers stay—get to be entire, believable characters and to tell their stories to the reader, often through funny and quirky dialog. You get to know Gamache’s squad as people and not just cops. Penny comes back to Three Pines again and again and, while the characters may joke that they seem to be known for their murders the way other small towns are known for their jam, it is worth it because these characters are worth getting to know well. And the sense of place in each novel makes reading them like taking a trip to the Canadian countryside.
These are not cozy mysteries, even though the investigations mostly take the form of intimate conversations in living rooms and kitchens. The murders are ugly and the motives are dark. But at the end, and why I look forward to each new volume as it comes out, you turn the last page feeling hopeful.
I happened to read Still Life over a cold, dark, late autumn week while I was home sick. Each book of Penny’s is set in a particular season and the weather and the angle of the light are always important to the plot. If you have never tried the series, the weather outside right now is the perfect accompaniment to get you started.
Books in the series:
1. Still Life