Louise Penny: Still Life

This is an elegantly written, compelling, and masterful first novel. If I were a betting woman I’d advise anyone interested in such things to lay aside a first edition; I plan to myself. It has so many wonderful aspects of a traditional mystery, somehow brought into the present and made fresh by the kind of lovely writing that is a rare discovery. My advance copy has pages and pages dog-eared so I could go back and reread various passages. The setting, a remote and tiny Canadian village called Three Pines, is visited by the death of one of its most beloved residents, retired school teacher Jane Neal. The head of the homicide division of the Surete in Quebec, Inspector Armand Gamache, is sent with his team to Three Pines to investigate. It’s hard to say what’s the more interesting part of this novel — Inspector Gamache himself, the setting, or the vividly drawn citizens of Three Pines, including the dead Jane Neal who we come to know as we read the book.

Inspector Gamache is truly a treasure, though; he’s reminiscent of Simenon’s classic character Maigret, being just as sensible, intelligent and level headed as the great Maigret himself. While I remember Maigret frequently alone, however, author Louise Penny has given Gamache a team to work with who are almost as interesting as he is himself. Most memorable is the willfully rude and superior (in her own humble opinion) Agent Yvette Nichol. While Gamache gives her the benefit of his years of experience — he tells her the four sentences to remember are “I’m sorry, I don’t know, I need help and I was wrong” — she ignores them to her cost. I’ve never encountered such an unfortunate assistant in any mystery; it’s a real twist that adds some interesting spice to the story. The way of Gamache is to announce to all and sundry that he will be spending lots of time in the cafĂ©, and then wait for everyone to come and talk to him, which they do.

The town is populated with artists Clara and Peter; an heir to a fortune, Ben, who has just lost his mother; a bookseller, a hefty black woman named Myrna; the gay owners of the town bed & breakfast and pub; a cranky and opinionated poetess, Ruth; and the Crofts, who are able to explain to the police the finer points of bow hunting, as the unfortunate Jane was apparently killed in a hunting accident with a bow and arrow. The characters are believably drawn, and more importantly, their lives are intertwined in interesting ways that add depth and tension to the unfolding story. One of the great moments of discovery is the interior of Jane’s home — she’s never allowed anyone past the kitchen — and her friends, after her death, are finally allowed to see inside. The whole is drawn with a sure hand that is obviously well acquainted with the work of Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey — but thankfully, this is an author who works in our own time who we can all savor now. I also can’t remember any of the above-mentioned ladies — despite the many hours of reading pleasure they have afforded me — ever bringing a tear to my eye, which happened frequently throughout this book, sometimes through the sheer loveliness of the prose. This is a new author to be treasured and above all, enjoyed. If there is a more perfect novel written this year, I would be very much surprised.