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"Still Life," by Louise Penny, takes place in Three Pines, a small rural village south of Montreal. This placid and beautiful hamlet is shaken to its core when a beloved and gentle seventy-six year old woman named Jane Neal is shot through the heart with an arrow. Was Neal's death the result of a hunting accident or was it murder? If it was an accident, why has no one come forward? If Jane was deliberately slain, who could have wanted her dead? One suspect is Jane's estranged niece, Yolande Fontaine, a cold, unfeeling, and greedy woman who is desperate to get her hands on her aunt's property. In addition, Yolande's husband is an obnoxious boor with a criminal record, and their son is a known delinquent.

In charge of the investigation is Chief Inspector of Homicide, Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. Although he is in his mid-fifties, "violent death still surprised him." Gamache is a man of integrity with keen powers of observation, and he is an excellent listener with an uncanny ability to make people reveal their innermost thoughts. Assisting Gamache is Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir, who has been Gamache's second-in-command for over ten years. Agent Yvette Nichol, an arrogant and impulsive young woman, is new to the team, and she quickly annoys her superiors with her irritating and smug attitude.

The varied cast of townspeople includes Clara and Peter Morrow, who are local artists; Clara, who was extremely close to Jane, is devastated by the old woman's death. Olivier and Gabri are gay partners who run a bistro and a bed and breakfast, and early in the book, they are victims of a vicious assault by three boys who mock the pair's sexual orientation. Myrna Landers is a former psychologist who has deep insight into the human condition. Ben Hadley has been Peter Morrow's close friend for years; Ben's mother, Timmer, died a month earlier after a lengthy battle with cancer. Ruth Zardo is a brusque curmudgeon who is not terribly popular, since she consistently says whatever is on her mind. Phillipe Croft, a troubled and surly fifteen-year-old boy is a suspect, as well, since he knows how to shoot with a bow an arrow and had a recent altercation with Jane.

Louise Penny has written a dryly humorous, thoughtful, and engrossing study of a network of close-knit friends and relatives who celebrate their successes and mourn their losses together. Who among them is harboring evil intentions? This book is reminiscent of Christie's Miss Marple mysteries, in that a snake suddenly rears its head in an apparently benign Garden of Eden. Until the snake is found and destroyed, anyone could be the next victim. The author's delineation of the individual personalities is remarkable. The plot is nicely constructed, with enough red herrings to keep the reader off balance. Penny is a gifted descriptive writer and the dialogue is lively and fast-paced. Gamache, far from being superhuman, makes mistakes but tries to learn from them, and he is an appealing protagonist. The title has a dual meaning. First, it refers to a painting by Jane Neal, called "Fair Day," which may point to the identity of her assailant. Additionally, "still life" is a metaphor for a person whose life is emotionally stunted and who blames others for his problems, instead of developing into a mature and productive adult. "Still Life" is an auspicious debut novel by a promising new author.
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on May 17, 2007
This is the most powerful debut mystery I've read in years. Meet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté de Québec, the most capable, intelligent, and charming detective to come along in a very long while. His first case takes him to the tiny town of Three Pines, just north of the U.S. border, where someone has killed a much-loved elderly woman with a bow-and-arrow. Who? Why? Gamache must sift through the complex relationships of a colorful group of local citizens to find the surprising answers.

Here are my favorite current mystery series authors: P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes...and Louise Penny. Yes, she's that good. Trust me. Read STILL LIFE, then read A FATAL GRACE, the second in the series and every bit as good as the first one. I can't wait for #3. Highly recommended.
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on October 13, 2009
Although this is by no means a bad book, I didn't like it nearly as much as the other reviewers. To me, the writing was sometimes disjointed and did not flow smoothly, in particular in the conversation between characters and sometimes when jumping between the present and the past. For a first novel about a village and the police officers called there to investigate a suspicious death, there was too much detail to absorb about all the different characters. A good series peels the layers away gradually, allowing depth to be revealed over time. I thought this book tried to reveal too much, too soon.

Inspector Gamache IS an appealing and intelligent character. All of the officers are supposed to be sharp in intellect. That made it strange (and annoying) to see how young officer Nichol misunderstood her superior's advice. It was also mystifying how Gamache, who is so observant and understanding of human nature, could not see how his advice to Nichol had gone wrong.

Finally, I just didn't "buy" the villian of the book. There were enough other plausible suspects to make it interesting, but, in the end, I couldn't believe that the killer could have kept his or her true nature hidden from so many intelligent people for so long. How could the other villagers have not seen something to make them know the nature of this callous individual over the many years they had lived together closely? In a big city where you nod hello to the other people in your apartment building, then I buy that you say "He seemed like such a nice guy." I grew up in a small town, and I found it hard to believe that almost no one really knew the killer. I want to read a mystery that makes sense and that is internally consistent, but I felt this book fell a bit short in that regard.
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on June 26, 2008
Louise Penny has written a wonderful "cozy murder mystery." The mystery is intriguing and well laid out. It is the characters, though, that you will fall in love with. They make the story! In this book that is the first in a series, Penny does a great job "hooking" the reader so that you want to read more about Three Pines. I bought Fatal Grace (the second book) at the same time as this one, and I am glad I did. I jumped right into it when I finished Still Life. Definitely worth your while!
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VINE VOICEon October 23, 2006
Though I usually go in for tough police thrillers, I sometimes mix things up by reading a light, funny mystery or- like this book- a quiet, thoughtful mystery set in a small town (a "cozy", I believe this type of mystery novel is called). "Still Life" nicely combines the easygoing attributes of a "cozy" mystery- quirky, eccentric characters, a small-town setting, pretty much no violence- with a little modernity, in the form of occasional well-placed profanity (though not much) and modern demographics (a gay couple is included among the main characters).

The main detective character, intelligent and interesting, owes a little to Christie's Hercule Poirot, but not everything. The mystery itself is pretty interesting, too, though some aspects of its solution are a little broad and clunky, as are some of the explanations of why ultimately cleared characters were acting suspicious for a time. Any shortcomings are quibbles, however, and shouldn't deter one from trying out this nicely done mystery story set in a quiet little corner of Quebec.
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on September 12, 2014
I had read that this was a "superb" mystery series (in the NY Times, even) and to be fair, this is Ms. Penny's very first book in the Inspector Gamache series. Maybe she came on strong in later books. But "Still Life" seemed pretty terrible to me -- full of unbelievable dialogue, wooden characters, and nutty descriptions of emotional trauma. ("Clara felt that someone had scooped not just her heart but her brain right out of her body.") Inspector Gamache isn't much fun to hang out with. The big clue left by the murder victim that's revealed at the end makes no sense at all.

The Kindle edition has study questions at the end, and one is "Which character in Three Pines would you like to have coffee with?" I honestly (and sadly) couldn't think of one. I could barely remember anyone's name.

Sorry to be such a negative nellie. I just wanted to warn any potential readers who (like me) had heard how wonderful these books are not to get their hopes up too much. This first one, at least, is very weak tea.
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on November 22, 2011
I'm typically not a fan of the humorous mystery novel, but Still Life won me over....just barely. In this novel we are introduced to Chief Inspector Gamache, a rather bland detective I never got a true feel for, and his equally blank subordinates, who are assigned to investigate a murder in a very small town not far from Montreal. The citizens of this small town consist of your usual "wacky" cast of characters: meddling old biddies, eccentric artists, the "fun" gay couple, etc., but they were enjoyable to read about nonetheless. The murder investigation takes several twists and turns, and frankly I was just ready for it all to be over with by the end. I never felt like the author was leading me anywhere as I read along. The resolution is fairly clever and satisfying, although I found myself not really caring "whodunit" all that much. Still, I found this book to be a worthy first effort and will likely try another book in the series. Good if you want something lighthearted to read, but nothing you just HAVE to have.
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on March 12, 2012
I really really wanted to love this author. My favourite mystery writer is Ruth Rendell, and, having read all of her books, I had hoped to find a new talent in this author, who writes about my former backyard in the province of Quebec. I know the places well, I know the French/Anglo conflict well, and so I had the highest of hopes.

The book is not a disaster. Despite its flaws, she moves the plot along nicely but the conclusion just doesn't make any sense and doesn't hit you in the gut like a Rendell plot device would.

Perhaps it's not fair to compare author to author, so let me just tell you what annoys me about this book. Take it for what it's worth, my opinion, and only that.

I found the writing awkward and disjointed, particularly because so much of the writing is dialogue and Louise doesn't do it well, in my opinion. That's not how people talk to each other. I also didn't buy the characters, except for Gamache. He is a standout character and I would have liked more insight into how his mind works, rather than reading bland and, to my ears, very phony dialogue from characters who didn't have anything to pull me into their lives and keep me there. The character of Clara the artist was particularly non-believable. Grating, in fact. And the two gay men who own a bistro. Could they be any more caricaturish? I was dumbounded by the broad-strokes stereotyping going on in this book.

I gave the book 2 stars because 1) Gamache is fascinating, and 2) I really did want to know who killed that nice old lady and why (so I kept reading); but when I got to the end I was furiously disappointed in the lacklustre ending.
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on September 7, 2012
The best part of this book is the author's attempt to give life to its characters. Some are better developed than others but from this perspective I found the book interesting to read. I also enjoyed insights into Québécois life.
The downside of the book was inspector Gamache himself. The author spends a good deal of space painting him as a perhaps not the most perfect inspector but certainly a very perfect human being doing the job of an inspector. It feels overdone and artificial.
Throughout the book I felt that the author has a certain moral agenda (represented by the Jane character) and those characters that fall in the category of life-loving, people-loving individuals emerge as better developed characters while the more problematic ones come across as one-dimensional support characters. The only exception is Ruth. I would have enjoyed the book more if some of the 'villains' were given more depth.
The plot is somewhat predictable.
I am in the habit of finishing books so I read it to the end. It took some discipline to do it.
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on October 13, 2013
I was quite disappointed in this first in a series. The writing is dreadful. The plot was interesting. The characters were poorly developed. I truly cannot imagine how this became popular, or a series. She must get better as a writer, but this was so bad, I have no intention of reading the next.
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