Staff Pick: Still Life by Louise Penny
I initially picked up Still Life for a book group. Then something magical happened, I fell in love with the bucolic village of Three Pines and Armand Gamache, Penny’s calm, courtly, thoughtful, compassionate and strong detective.
Set in the Canadian province of Quebec, Still Life features many hallmarks of a British whodunit, including murders by unconventional means, bucolic villages, large casts of suspects, red herrings, and a dramatic disclosure of the murderer in the last few pages of the book. Penny has been compared to Agatha Christie, and while there is a surface resemblance, Penny’s novels delve deeper into characters and the darkness within. Her villains are regular people – they blend in, they’re you and me and people we know. And that’s the horror. Not that we’re betrayed and attacked by perfect strangers, but that the attack comes from within.
And all this is happening in a perversely idyllic setting, making the darkness all the more stark. Three Pines is a tiny village in Quebec, close the border with Vermont. It’s part French and part English, as is Quebec. Many say that Canada is not an exotic enough locale for U.S. readers – but Penny’s novels do very well here. She says part of the appeal is the “French fact – It’s romantic and gracious, the food is different, the culture is different… and yet it’s close enough and familiar enough that Americans can relate.” As a resident of a small village in Quebec herself, Penny’s insight into the bilingual, bicultural aspect of Quebecois life rings true.
Another appeal is Penny’s detective. Still Life introduces Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team of homicide detectives. According to Penny, Gamache is partly based on her husband and partly on her idealized man. “He was created because I never wanted to tire of my main character… I needed someone I would choose to spend perhaps the rest of my life with. And so I intentionally created a man I would choose to marry. Superficially he was inspired by the heroes I had growing up. My grandfather, who taught me poetry, Walt Disney, Ben Cartwright, Walter Cronkite. Middle aged men who have a calm, and a decency.” Gamache is a man with a moral center. A man who, while flawed, will always try to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.
There is much to enjoy in Still Life – including a deftly plotted traditional mystery. I hope you enjoy your visit to Three Pines as much as I did!