Still Life by Louise Penny

Louise Penny won the CWA John Creasey dagger in 2006 with this – the first in the series about Chief Inspector Gamache.

Seventy six year old Jane Neal has lived in the sleepy, remote village of Three Pines all her life. She knows everyone and as the retired school teacher many from the younger generations were taught by her. Life is peaceful in Three Pines, crime is rare, the local newspaper carries headlines about homemade patchwork quilts and people only lock their doors to prevent generous neighbours from gifting excess zucchini at harvest time. When Jane is found dead – shot by an arrow – the villagers are shaken out of their cosy world and secrets long hidden away tumble out into the light of day. Murder or freak accident in the woods, it’s up to Gamache to find out.

The first in the series - click through link to Waterstones
The first in the series – click through link to Waterstones

This is Gamache’s first visit to Three Pines and the villagers are lucky to have him investigate. Wise, gentle and genuinely interested in people he is always surprised by violent death and knows that the truths that will be uncovered in his investigation will hurt more than just the deceased. Along with Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, Agent Isabelle Lacoste and trainee Yvette Nichol he is about to examine every aspect of this village’s life.

First up is the discovery that certain homophobic youths had been caught by Jane while throwing manure at the front of the Bistro as an act of violence against Gabri and Olivier who run it. Next they find that Jane is a secret artist, so secret that by the time the police gain access to her home any art she may have produced has vanished with the exception of one curiously naïve and hideous piece that had been entered for a local exhibition. Then they discover that a surprisingly high number of the local population belong to the archery club which in addition to all the hunting tourists makes the field of suspects massive. But Gamache knows that trouble usually starts close to home and that “a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” Matthew 10:36. That quote is a refrain throughout the series but here in the first book we the reader have yet to learn how that will weave its way through the stories that follow.

Among the many rewarding and warming things they discover about the inhabitants of Three Pines is that Gabri – a large man in a frilly apron with a penchant for silver screen dramatic touches – is also the most wonderful chef. Quite broken at the death of his dear friend Jane, Gabri bakes rosewater muffins in tribute to her and her love of roses. More truths about Jane come to light at her memorial service when ascerbic old poet Ruth sings ‘what do you do with a drunken sailor’ and Jane’s friends join in, finding pleasure in the memory that it was the only song Jane had ever taught them in school and even the nativity play had featured it.

Meanwhile Gamache is having trouble with his newest recruit. Agent Nichol hears but doesn’t listen, and every encouraging or thoughtful attempt to support her training that Gamache makes is seen by her as a sign of muddled, old-fashioned thinking. Her pride nearly sabotages the investigation more than once, but slowly the field is narrowed and the picture comes into focus. Over protective parents, changed wills and ghastly wallpaper cannot hide the truth for ever and the reasons behind the murder of one old woman are finally laid bare.

This book is fine read as a one-off, but it is really just the briefest introduction to a wonderful series packed with tremendous characters that I guarantee will become old friends if you give them a chance.

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.