Louise Penny gives Gamache his Grand Debut
Though I would argue there are still none who have surpassed Agatha Christie as the queen of murder mystery series, there are many who have come close or even proven themselves equal. Writing a successful mystery series led by the same detective is, in my opinion, a real badge of honour in the realm of literature, and I think Louise Penny deserves one for her Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series.
The first book was published all the way back in 2008, titled Still Life, and introduced us to the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec’s national police force), as well as his team of investigators generally tasked with the more complicated crimes. The first case we see him working takes him to the remote fictional hamlet of Three Pines, where quaintness is just a front.
A local fixture of the small hamlet, Jane Neal, has been found dead in the woods after being shot with an arrow. The locals, while shocked and absorbed in tragedy, don’t think of it as anything other than a hunting accident which could have happened to anyone. These, however, are the conclusions of minds far less observant than Inspector Gamache’s.
Though his arrival in the village doesn’t exactly raise any suspicions at first, the little details start to mount one on top of the other, leading the inspector to believe there is something truly dark, sinister and rotten hiding beneath Three Pines’ idyllic veneer, and Jane fell victim to it.
The people of Three Pines are generally secretive and tend to look out for each other, cutting Gamache’s work out for him, forcing him and his detectives to roll up their sleeves and start digging through the carefully-hidden dirt, and hopefully bring the evil core of it all into the light.
The Guilty Pleasure of Still Life
Murder mysteries and detective stories come in all shapes and flavours, with pretty much every book falling into a somewhat specific category. When it comes to Still Life, and in the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series as a whole, I think it’s important to understand what you will and won’t be getting from it.
In terms of realism and procedural descriptions, Still Life certainly doesn’t come close to what some other authors in the genre are capable of providing. On the contrary, for me this book harkens back to the golden age of Agatha Christie where the logical chain of events surrounding a murder was more focused on, rather than the scientific methods used to solve it.
Indeed, I would find it difficult to classify this is a procedural. Instead, I feel a much greater certainty in classifying this as a guilty pleasure, a type of novel you know won’t hold itself to the often too-stern standards of realism, and can spirit you away from the real world just for a little while.
With this being said, Louise Penny naturally understands there needs to be a certain level of grounding in the novel, and so we never run off the rails into completely ridiculous territory requiring a suspension of disbelief. In my opinion, she struck a superb balance between adhering to the rules of the real world and using the power of fiction to give it colour.
All the events, the characters as well as their actions follow the rules of logic and common sense, and the mystery itself is fairly clever and doesn’t feel unrealistic, although I do admit I had some trouble accepting the culprit’s motivations in the end. However, I found it to be a trifling detail in a novel of pure escapism.
The Magnetism of French Canada
The murder and its investigation is, without question, the central glue holding everything together not only in this book, but pretty much every other novel in the series as well. It’s never let out of sight for too long, and the events do unfold at a steady and respectable pace from start to finish. However, there is another, rather appealing characteristic to this book, and it’s the author’s depiction of French Canadian culture.
As much as it’s a murder case, it’s also a trek into a fictional town representing a small and specific culture located in the world’s second-largest country. Whenever she gets the opportunity, Penny gives us a little more information about the culture, its customs, and so on and so forth.
In Still Life we get detailed descriptions of the food the people eat, the town itself, how the people think, how they behave, the heritage they come from… and I must say, I can personally testify to the veracity of her depictions, having lived in Quebec for over twenty years. You can pretty much take her word as gospel as far as these matters are concerned.
With this being said, the descriptions of the setting and characters are never too long or truly intrusive when it becomes a question of advancing the main plot. Louise Penny doesn’t simply bombard us with walls of facts and history lessons, but rather intersperses them strategically over the course of the story.
Sometimes they complement whatever events might be unfolding, and at other times they provide us with a welcome respite from the grim subject of murder and make the story palpably lighter. In the end, I think they’ll make many of you fall in love with the French part of Canada.
The Final Verdict
Still Life by Louise Penny is an excellent debut to the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, mixing an intelligent murder case with captivating excursions into local culture. If you’re looking for a light murder mystery with a realm warmth to it, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a fair shot.
Louise Penny is a Canadian author who has taken to writing mystery novels where the events unfold in the province of Quebec, following the inspector Armand Gamache.
Some of her better-known novels include Still Life which earned her the 2005 New Blood Dagger Award, A Fatal Grace which was the winner of the 2007 Agatha Award, as well as six additional Agatha Christie awards to this day.