Book Critique – Still Life (Gamache Series #1)

For review of all books in the series: Go here 

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A murder set in a quaint village investigated by a pair of detectives, all the while unearthing hidden secrets of the locals and creating ripples in their calm pool. What else you need for a successful murder mystery?

Still Life is the first book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series by Louise Penny first published in January of 2005. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is introduced here in his very first case of a suspicious death of a local prominent person in the village of Three Pines. This was also the debut novel for Penny which earned her several awards like New Blood Dagger Awards, Arthur Ellis Award, the Dilys Award, 2007 Anthony Award and the Barry Award.

The series revolves around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, the police force for Quebec, investigating secrets and shadows beneath the tranquil world of the village of Three Pines. He also unearths some of his own secrets, faces his own fears and exorcises some of his own ghosts, along the way. The series has won many acclaimed awards such as New Blood Dagger, multiple  Agatha Awards among others. A total of 16 books and 1 novella have been published so far beginning with Still Live in 2005, and the series still continues with the 16th book set to be released in September of this year.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called on to the location of the death of Jane Neal, a long-time resident of the village of Three Pines, on the morning of Thanksgiving Sunday. Although staged to look like a hunting accident, Gamache was convinced that it was no such thing. Now he proceeds to dig through the lives of all the people connected to Jane Neal in order to find her murderer. 

I have never read a Louise Penny book. However, a friend of mine (Patty) again loaned a few of her books which included this one. I distinctly remember her telling me that I would like this book. 

Penny's story doesn’t have any sex or violence in the plot-line. However, she does bring forth critical social evils such as bashing the gay couple; etc. Without making them overtly gruesome, Penny takes the readers mind into these evils giving them a pause to ponder on.

One of the quote of W. H. Auden is used by Penny at the beginning of the novel which I would say pretty much sums up the basic theme of this series as well the current plot. 

Evil is unspectacular and always human; And shares our bed and eats at our own table,

It is normal for any author to use either quotes, recipes, scenes from other actual books, movies or cookbooks. But Penny mixes the real ones with fictional ones in this plot. At least three books - Loss by Brother Albert; Being by Dr. Vincent Gilbert; The Boy's Big Book of Hunting - are totally fictional including the authors. She did mention in one of her FB post when the famous Canadian theologist, Jean Vanier, passed away, that his Becoming Human was basis for her use of a book titled "Being" by fictional character Dr. Vincent Gilbert in the plot.

One of her characters, Ruth Zardo nee Kemp, is a poet in the series. Penny quotes several lines from her poems. I couldn’t find who wrote those poems for real or if Penny used someone else's as basis to create them. 

Gamache not only deals with the local people, their reluctance to answer questions, his superiors who put hurdles; he also deals with a rookie cop who is full of herself, smug, and not ready to learn anything. 

The language is a mix of English and French and some words that I have never heard. So my fingers flew to google a lot during this reading to figure out a few phrases and words. However, no matter how much I tried I couldn’t figure out what Penny meant about one character being "a Montreal Brahmin". That character was not definitely from India and belonging to a Brahmin caste either. So not sure what it meant, but only thing I could garner from it's usage in the sentence is that that character comes from a very high pedigree like Brahmins in Hinduism being the highest caste. 

Penny gives away the killer and motive in the very beginning of the book itself, subtly hidden behind lines from famous poems and quotes. It was only a matter of following the trail of clues she leaves for readers to eventually reach the killer. I guessed perhaps around 3/4th into the book even though there were clues left all around.

The characters we get introduced to are so familiar to us as if we have known them all our life. Every one them seem to be reminding us of someone we might have met along the way. Yet there is a dark humor surrounding all these lovable characters giving you chills that you don’t normally expect.

Her plotting of the story reminded me so much of Midsomer Murders, a British Television Detective Drama, where a pair detectives investigate various cases in the villages of fictional English county, Midsomer County. The TV show began in 1997 and so far aired 21 seasons. Perhaps Penny is inspired from this TV show in setting the Gamache stories.

Louise Penny leaves enough of sub-plots and a plethora of characters I am sure we would see in the remaining books she has written so far. Everything about the book, characters and storyline makes me want to pick up the next book in the series soon. I just might.

A murder set in a quaint village investigated by a pair of detectives, all the while unearthing hidden secrets of the locals and creating ripples in their calm pool. What else you need for a successful murder mystery? Go for it if you havent picked it yet.

Spoiler Alerts:

1. Plot reveals:

a. Still Life was released as a movie by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) TV in 2013 with Nathaniel Parker cast in the role of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.

b. Media / Books quoted in the novel:

i. The Collected Works of W. H. Auden is mentioned in the beginning of the book, but I couldn’t find any such book although I found similar books with titles close to what was mentioned in this novel. Jane quotes from the 1939 poem Herman Melville, by Auden as well.

ii. Gabri quotes the introductory words of the old time radio show, The Shadow. 

iii. Gamache quotes from Julius Caesar - The fault, dear Brutus; Abbie Hoffman's quotes.

iv. Mrs. Suzanne Croft hums the nursery rhyme Little Boy Blue. At Jane's memorial service her friend sing the Irish sea shanty, What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor.

v. Other works mentioned: Orlando by Virginia Woolf; The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer; Jenny Kiss'd Me, poem by Leigh Hunt. 

c. Ari Nikulas had given stories about their Uncle Saul, the black sheep of the family; and that they had lost family in Czechoslovakia. Stories which prompted Yvette to pursue career in law enforcement. A sub-plot line for Penny to explore in future books indeed.

d. It was unclear why Philippe Croft was angry at his father, Matthew Croft and lashes out at everyone at home. 

e. Gamache dismisses the obnoxious rookie cop, Agent Yvette Nichol, and removes her from the case. Nichol seems to hold a grudge against Gamache - a future plot for her perhaps. 

f. Gamache leaves with a comment that although he likes the people he met at Three Pines, he has concerns on a few of them, and that there could be more killings. Certainly a segue to the next book I suppose. 

2. Sub-Plots:

a. Three Pine Locals: Clara and Peter Morrow, husband & wife artists; Olivier  Brule & Gabri Dubeau, gay couple owning Olivier's Bistro and a B&B; Kids - Gus Hennessey, Claude LaPierre; Elise Jacob, chairperson of Arts Williamsburg; Henri Lariviere, stone artist; Irenee Calfat, a potter; Ruth Zardo nee Kemp, chief of volunteer fire brigade & a poet; Myrna Landers; Matthew  & Suzanne Croft, their kids Philippe & Diane; Benjamin "Ben" Hadley, Peter's best friend; Yolande Fontaine, Jane's niece, her husband Andre Malenfant & son Bernard "Bernie" Malenfant; Nellie & Wayne Robertson; Hanna Parra, local elected representative; Old Mundin; Jacques Beliveau, owner of the local general store; Helene Charron; Sarah; Isaac Coy, caretaker; 

b. Law Enforcement & other Supporting Departments: Robert Lemieux, cop with the Cowansville Sûreté;  Agent Yvette Nichol, rookie cop with Gamache; Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache's right-hand man; Dr. Sharon Harris, medical examiner; Isabelle Lacoste; Superintendent Michel Brebeuf; Maitre Norman Stickley, solicitor; Claude Guimette, provincial guardian; Maitre Brigitte Cohen, from the prosecutor's office; Sergeant Mai LaCroix, desk Sergeant at the HQ; Solange Frenette, notary; 

c. Agent Nichol's family: father Ari Nikulas; sister Angelina;

d. Armand Gamache is a student of Christ's College, Cambridge. Had studied history. A case in his past, Arnot case, cause to stop his professional commendations. His pearls of wisdom to rookies and his team are "I was wrong. I'm sorry. I don’t know. I need help." He has a wife, Reine-Marie.

3. Grammatical / Factual / Location / Historical / Character Errors:

a. On Pg. 59, Line 19, it is missing a closing quote.

b. On Pg. 231, Line 6, it should be "…being able to see something…"


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