Top positive review
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"Ultimately it's us and our choices."
on July 23, 2006
"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.