With fourteen books so far to the series, it’s not surprising that I feel like I have heard the Chief Inspector Gamache novels come up a bit. As the first novel in the series, I fully expected this to be a mediocre to decent novel, the usual first effort of a series where the author shows glimpses of the brilliance to come while also still finding her feet. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I liked this novel!
First off, it was so nice to have a detective that is simply a kind and thoughtful man who appreciates his family, and has achieved a balance between success and following his own moral ground that he can live with. I definitely read too many Scandinavian crime stories at one point when “detective is a not a dick or an alcoholic” is one for the plus column. The rest of the team also shows a true collaborative environment. Additionally, the mystery has a slightly slower, cozy pace, and Penny does a good job of fleshing out the rest of the supporting characters in the village as well, creating characters so full that I want them to show back up in follow up novels.
As thoughtful as the chief inspector and his team are, they still end up on false trails and following red herrings (I did feel one of these dragged on a bit more than necessary but small complaint for the beginning of a series). I also appreciated that Penny’s characters didn’t follow the usual tropes and acted in ways I didn’t expect. I am referring to Yvette Nichol, of course. As the novel starts, Nichol is among one of the first characters introduced. The daughter of immigrants, she has been recently transferred to homicide and Jane Neal’s murder is going to be her first case as part of Chief Inspector Gamache’s team. Nichol is eager to proof herself, and I fully expected a side plot about a rookie who learns from her mentors, and becomes an integral part of the team over the course of the series. After all, as a newcomer to the team, she expected her to be the one the reader could follow to learn the ropes. However, based on this first novel at least, this is absolutely not what happens. Nichol is so eager to proof herself that she acts smugly, disobeys, can’t take advice, and doesn’t know when to listen. While she shows promise on more than one occasion, she also doesn’t know how to act around witnesses, cannot admit to mistakes, and often misses the obvious (there is one scene involving a sticker and a mirror that perfectly encapsulates how dense Nichol is).
The main mystery is set in a small town in Quebec. After 76 year old Jane Neal is found dead, Chief Inspector Gamache are called in on the case. As part of the investigation, Penny lets the reader into the lives of Jane and her close friends, Ben, the son of her dead friend Timmer, Ruth, the grouchy poet, Gabri and Olivier, the owners of the local bistro and “bed and brunch,” and Peter and Clara, a local artist couple. After years of hiding her art, Jane has finally submitted a piece for a local art exhibition, and while her piece caused extremely divergent opinions among the judges, it is accepted. Only two days later, Jane is dead in the woods. Is it a coincidence? A run of the mill hunting accident? Was it related to her art? Or was something hidden in her home that someone wanted to remain undiscovered?
Edited to fix the name of the victim.