Still Life, by Louise Penny

>> Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TITLE: Still Life (audiobook)
AUTHOR: Louise Penny

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary (well, 1990s) Canada
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Inspector Gamache series

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, just north of the U.S. border, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in these remote woods, and is soon certain that Jane Neal died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.
Still Life was my third audiobook (and at what point will I stop counting and mentioning it in the review?). I keep getting recs for mystery series and picking up the first book, but then I often don't get to them for ages, if I do at all. I'm hoping audiobooks will change that, since I don't think I'll be listening to romances, as the idea of the love scenes being read out feel a bit weird.

The first in the Inspector Gamache series, the book is set in a small village in Quebec, close to Montreal. A former teacher, loved by everyone in the community, is found killed by an arrow. In most places, this would point to the killer pretty quickly, but this is a part of the world where hunters use arrows as often as they do guns, and pretty much everyone knows what to do with a bow and arrow.

Gamache and his team are called to investigate, even though most in the village assume this was just a tragic accident. But Gamache soon finds too many clues pointing to murder.

Still Life wasn't perfect, but I thought it was a very promising start to the series. The case is an interesting one, with plenty of red herrings and possible avenues of investigation, and I really liked the final sections of it, when something quite unique gives the final clue to the culprit. The best thing about the book, however, is Gamache himself.

Gamache is a great character. He's a thoroughly decent guy, someone who is keenly aware of the way a violent death affects the community amongst which it happens, and more interested in the people affected by it than in the puzzle. He has no arrogance, and is willing to accept information and ideas from anyone, and glad when those in his team (whom he consciously mentors in the best way he can) do well. At the same time, he can be a tough boss when someone is not doing a good job because of attitude, rather than capabilities issues. This happens with the newest member of his team, Yvette Nichol, and I'm very interested to see how that situation develops.

This emphasis on collaboration and teamwork means that, while Gamache is in charge, it feels very much like the murder is solved by a team, rather than an individual. The closest I can think to this is a Swedish mystery I read a few years ago, written even longer ago, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. It felt very much like that. I wonder if the more collective approach is a more Canadian/European think, as opossed to the the more individualistic approach that's demanded in the US. I tend to always compare mysteries to the In Death series (which I love, by the way). While Eve trusts her team and they make important contributions, it feels like it's important to the series that Eve solves the case. That wasn't the feeling I got from this at all, and I enjoyed the different approach.

All that said, I had several issues with the book, mainly regarding the characterisation of a number of secondary characters, where it felt to me like Penny did not trust her own writing and really overdid it. Take the overload of adjectives regarding Yolande and her husband and son. There is no need to tell us over and over that these people (and everything about them, from their looks to their laughs) are "vile" and "disgusting" and all around awful. How about trusting that we'll draw our own conclusion from what you show us of their actions? And it's a similar case for other characters, especially Agent Nichol, where Penny found it necessary to tell us a bit too much about what was going through her head, rather than show us. That felt pretty amateurish, but I hope it's ironed out as the series advances and Penny becomes more experienced.

As for the narration (done by Ralph Cosham), it was ok. It felt less alive than that of Barbara Rosenblat, mainly because he did less with the dialogue, but well, she is supposed to be one of the best narrators around. Still, I guess I don't mind a more neutral narration, and his French accent was fine. Not sure if it was proper Quebecois, but I wouldn't be able to know the difference!



Mean Fat Old Bat 24 October 2012 at 21:53  

I'm interested in your review of this book. I've tried twice to read it and just couldn't get into it. I think I'll try again, with your comments and insight in the back of my mind this time.

I want to like this series. It has quite a backlist, and several of the earlier books are bargains.

Anonymous,  24 October 2012 at 23:31  

Ditto the previous commenter. I've tried like twice to read this one. I was planning to skip it and try the next one instead. --Keishon

Rosario 25 October 2012 at 06:41  

I'm not too surprised, the beginning is not particularly dynamic, but it does get better. I'm planning to listen to the second one soon (just picked it up from the library), and when I do, I can let you know whether you miss much if you skip the first one.

Darlynne,  25 October 2012 at 22:33  

I've inhaled all of this series in print, digital and audio. Gamache is a huge reason for that, but also Clara and Ruth and, eventually, all of the citizens of Three Pines. One of the aspects I enjoy the most is that, on the surface, these books seem to be cozy mysteries, which are not my cup of tea at all. And the crimes themselves are not particularly heinous, but it's the underlying, petty ugliness--even between partners in a committed relationship--that I find so fascinating.

Many readers have struggled with Still Life so perhaps starting with the second might work better; with each successive story, we learn more about the characters, we see more and, for me, I care so deeply about them it's almost embarrassing. I will say that Agent Nichol is even more reprehensible as the series progresses and then, as with so much else in the series, there is an explanation. Above all, though, it is Gamache and his unflagging humanity, particularly when everyone else has lost or abandoned theirs, that keeps me coming back.

Rosario 26 October 2012 at 07:07  

Darlynne: That's interesting, I didn't realise Three Pines itself was a recurring character! Does Gamache move there, or something? Wait, don't answer, I'll read book 2 soon! :)

I do agree about how she does fascinating relationships. Peter and Clara were particularly good in the first book. They clearly love each other, but at certain points, you can just see the exasperation.

Susan/DC,  29 October 2012 at 21:25  

I liked this but had one big issue with the solution to the crime.



Why use wallpaper when paint would be more effective and not nearly so noticeable a cover-up?

Rosario 30 October 2012 at 12:25  


I did wonder about that. It seemed irrational. Why would you use something that would call attention to itself? Surely you'd want a thick coat of paint that no one would ever remark on. But maybe it was meant to be an irrational reaction. The niece and the rest of Jane's family despised her art and thought it was ugly and unseemly and embarrassing. Maybe she wanted to cover that ugliness with ugliness. Probably an overinterpretation, though. It's more likely to have been a purely plot-driven choice!

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