Still Life is Louise Penney's first novel featuring Sûreté du Québec Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team. It was the runner up for the 2004 CWA Dagger Award for a debut. It also received starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Booklist. The accolades were well deserved.
Gamache and his team are called to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the death of the town's former schoolteacher, Jane Neal. At first, her death appears to be a hunting accident, she was killed in the woods by an arrow. It quickly becomes evident that this was no accident. Someone murdered the much loved older woman. Why?
As Gamache questions the townspeople, he becomes more and more convinced that it was a local who killed the victim. He finds that a few residents have motive, but not the means while a few more have the means but not the motive. Gamache painstakingly takes each piece of new information and fits it into the puzzle much like one does with a jigsaw puzzle until the entire puzzle makes a complete picture.
As you read this book, you become impressed with Gamache. He's not embittered, an alcoholic, a bully, nor a sycophant. Rather he is literate, kind, and caring. He listens to each person he interviews, he relies on his team to gather information, and, with his team, he solves the murder. Gamache is not the only unique character in this book. Jane Neal comes alive for the reader as Gamache talks to the townspeople about the deceased. Gamache's second-in-command Jean Guy Beauvoir is nearly the opposite of Gamache by nature, but has learned from his boss and mentor to conduct a thorough investigation. New to the team is Yvette Nichol a young woman who is unable to take responsibility for her actions, unwilling to learn from the ever-patient Gamache, and in the end is sent home in disgrace. The townspeople, too, are complete, fleshed-out characters, including the local bistro's owners, Olivier and Gabri, the local bookstore owner, Myrna, and the town's curmudgeon and poet Ruth Zardo.
The writing is superb. Penny keeps the story moving forward one clue at a time. Toward the end of the book, the reader, like Gamache, has changed her mind about who the murderer must be. In the end, it is the victim herself who solves the crime in a twist that will have the reader saying, "I should have known that, the clues were all there." An added bonus is that while I don't expect to laugh out loud while reading mysteries, I did in this one.
I read Penny's latest entry, "Bury Your Dead," in this series first. I loved that book so much that I immediately went out and bought "Still Life" and the other books in the series. I have three authors who I consider among the best mystery writers writing today. I have put Penny on that list, which includes P.D. James, Charles Todd, and Laurie R. King.
If you like your mysteries intelligent, subtle, well written, and, at the end, wanting the book to go on for a while longer, then this is the book and the series for you.