Home » “Still Life” by Louise Penny – No Accidents in Three Pines

“Still Life” by Louise Penny – No Accidents in Three Pines

“Still Life” by Louise Penny (Header image)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Short Summary

Louise Penny, back in 2008, began something I’m sure even she had trouble anticipating, creating the first novel in the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series (now with sixteen entries and counting), titled Still Life. For his first time out under the sun, the inspector is tasked with a deceitful case, appearing like an open-and-shut tragic accident. Gamache, however, can feel there’s something dark and rotten hiding in the remote woods of Three Pines.

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.

To give you a brief Still Life summary, 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. To find out who killed Jane in Still Life, him and his detectives are forced to roll up their sleeves and start digging through the carefully-hidden dirt, to hopefully bring the evil core of it all into the light.

Most of us are great with change, as long as it was our idea.

― Louise Penny, Still Life

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.

I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.

― Louise Penny, Still Life

A Mystery Captured on Paint

As the novel’s title strongly suggests it, art is a major part of the investigation we’re being thrown into, and it all revolves around Jane’s painting. I think there’s a lot to be said for pinning a painting as the centrepiece of a mystery, largely because it’s a static object with the potential to contain quite a bit within it, one we can keep coming back to again and again.

In Still Life, Louise Penny, in my opinion at least, makes as good of a use of Jane’s painting as I’ve ever seen anyone do it. From the very first moment we are introduced to it, we’re made aware of its special qualities, of the inexplicable magnetism it seems to affect its viewers with, and I couldn’t help but become enthralled with it myself.

The author also takes the opportunity to educate us a little bit about the unsurprisingly-elitist world of professional painters and art critics, and she makes it seem about as pretentious as it appears to be in real life. However, she also shows the beautiful side of the equation as well, arguing for the transformative power of paintings and how profoundly they can inspire both their creators and observers.

The more we keep coming back to the painting (which, by the way, is described in superbly vivid detail), the more Louise Penny piques our curiosity by constantly teasing and challenging us to figure what is so special about it. As a matter of fact, I believe it was the primary hook which kept me glued to the story from start to finish, not to say there weren’t other factors in play, of course.

Personally-speaking, the painting almost took on an eerie and exciting quality as we got closer and closer to the end and it became increasingly likely that the whole mystery revolved around what wasn’t shown in the painting. All in all, it served as a magnificent linchpin to tie the whole story together, and the ultimate resolution isn’t as obvious as it would appear at first glance.

We choose our thoughts. We choose our perceptions. We choose our attitudes.

― Louise Penny, Still Life

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.

312St. Martin’s MinotaurSept. 30 2008978-0312541538

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 (Author)

Louise Penny

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.

David Ben Efraim (Page Image)

David Ben Efraim (Reviewer)

David Ben Efraim is a book reviewer living in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and co-owner of Bookwormex, as well as the Quick Book Reviews blog, along with Yakov Ben Efraim. With a love for literature reaching across all genres (except romance), he has embarked on the quest to share its wonders with the world by helping people find their way to books which truly speak to them, whether they be modern sensations or relics from a bygone era.

1 thought on ““Still Life” by Louise Penny – No Accidents in Three Pines”

  1. Oh, please spare me the thought of the genre of literature called “cozy mysteries”. Our community book club chose Still Life by Louise Penny as the discussion work this time around. Cozy mysteries are for those readers who want to forego blood and sex when it comes to reading. Cozy mysteries, take the crime novel and sterilize it to the point of making murder boring. Still life is repleat with literary weakness.
    1. The characters are just plan unlikable and one dimensional.
    2. Some characters, like agent Nachole are superfluous to the point of not being needed at all.
    3. The gay couple is stereotypical to the point of being caricatures of themselves.
    4. After the opening paragraph, in chapter 1, notifying the reader of Jane’s death the reader can skip to chapter 2 and waste little time reading fluff.
    5. C.I, Gamache spends too much time sitting around giving too much information to the citizens of Three Pines about the investigation.
    I can only hope that Ms. Penny writes more books about the murdered residents of Three Pines. That way, one by one, theses insipid characters, who dwell in the town, can dwindle into cozy mystery history.
    No blood, no sex, boring characters, politically correct to a fault. My suggestion to any reader approaching the town of Three Pines is to drive on to a place wherein life is real, and murder is anything but cozy.


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