My husband and I started watching the Three Pines series on Amazon Prime, which was enjoyable; Chief Inspector Gamache, played by Alfred Molina, is a delight of eyebrows. The television series reminded me that I likely hadn’t read Ms. Penny’s earlier works though I have picked up the occasional book in an airport bookstore but have moved haphazardly through the series; thus, I decided to start at the first book.
Sill Life draws Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec to the delightfully bucolic Quebec town of Three Pines due to a suspicious death. As I knew coming into this book, and as you may well know, Three Pines may be bucolic with a charming variety of residents, but it is a deadly place! Jane Neal, the victim, lived a quiet, unassuming life in Three Pines, teaching for decades at the local school before retiring to care for her flowers and her lovely dog. She is beloved by many of the townsfolk for her kindness, although they note she would not allow anyone past her kitchen. Shortly before her death she enters a painting in the town art fair; her friends, the judges, are shocked by the work, some declaring it delightful, while others protesting in dismay. None had seen her work before, and the very personal, rustic style, described as caveman-like, childlike, vivid and colorful, and evocative of the village scene she depicts. Personally, I struggled to understand how everyone picked out so many friends and townsfolk from the piece, given this description, but I imagine that is my imaginative shortcoming. And then she is dead. (As a side note, she described the work of several other Three Pines’ artists, and I appreciated how it was clear Penny thought through different artistic approaches and techniques in describing the artists and their art.)
Overall, this cozy mystery was enjoyable – not a challenging read, but I think it does a nice job of setting up the environment of Three Pines and the main characters, who will struggle with many dark issues in subsequent books, like police corruption and brutality and indigenous disappearances. Chief Inspector Gamache is the platonic ideal of a police inspector in this book as he is warm and thoughtful, uses discretion with making decisions about how to handle petty crimes, and he nurtures his younger staff. He speaks highly of his subordinates, in general, but we don’t see too many sparks of insight from them; mostly they bring him whatever they find and he puts it all together. There is one new investigator, Agent Yvette Nicol, who is a mess – rude, rigid, self-absorbed, and maybe not too bright – and it is not clear to me why there is so much focus on her. The townsfolk really range from pretty interesting (the foul-mouthed poet) to caricatures (the decent, but poor, Matthew Croft who works in the road department and bow hunts; the gay couple who own the bistro and bed and breakfast in town). Penny can capture people briefly and beautifully; for example, she notes that Myrna, the bookstore owner and former counselor, “…felt if she could just get a good look at a person’s bookcase and their grocery cart, she’d pretty much know who they were.”
This book addressed themes that recur in subsequent books: how the past, and our failures to wrangle it (living ‘still’ lives, as Penny would put it, in Myrna’s words), influences our present; the search for belonging; and the power of light to banish darkness. Still Life sets the groundwork for the exploration of these themes.
I would say this is a 3.5 or so, for me.