Still LifeThe Beginning of the Quintessential Cozy Mystery Series

Author: Louise Penny

Three Pines is a quaint Montreal Village with stunning forest vistas, antique shops, elegant walkways, surrounding mountain scenery, bakeries, quirky citizens, and old, deadly secrets. Miss Jane Neal, an elderly and beloved lady of the town has recently opened up to the possibility of displaying her artwork – long held as a painful, perhaps even scandalous, secret. When her strange painting, “Fair Day” is judged as worthy of being included in the upcoming show, Jane does something extremely unlikely – she invites everyone into her home for a dinner party. No one has ever seen the inside of Jane’s home, despite opening their own homes and heart to the usually chipper lady, and gossip is buzzing. However, before the celebration can arrive Miss Jane is found in the woods, an arrow through her heart.

Believed to be an unfortunate hunting accident by the grieving town, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache suspects that there is more to this death than meets the eye. Could Jane have been killed by her scheming niece? What about the local boys recently caught by Jane flinging insults and manure at the home of her friends, an exuberant gay couple? And then there is Ruth Zardo, whose interference in Jane’s past and awkward brusqueness intimate a darker character than that of a mere curmudgeon. What of the local artist couple, close friends of Miss Neal, and both judges at the fair’s painting exhibit? Could Jane’s death be tied to something even further in her past – the death of Timmer Hadley, a beloved friend who died the same day as depicted in Jane’s fateful artwork.

Originally drawn to the series through the fluke of winning a book in my church’s basket raffle, The Brutal Telling, I return to the beginning to follow the characters and misadventures in order. I am not disappointed. Penny’s elegant, descriptive prose brings the town alive. The wet, verdant woods, the blind, the soft crunch of twigs and leaves, the sudden whoosh of an unseen arrow – it’s all exceptionally harrowing and strangely cozy, atmospheric combining a unique sadness with an inexplicably comforting aura.   Still Life is a cozy which verges on the more traditional mystery, blending the elements of description and quaint setting with a hardcore investigation and a devastating death. It’s an entrancing mix that encourages readers to keep turning pages.

It’s evident that Penny planned her characters to return from the very beginning of the series. Because of this, the pacing here is slow, labored with details about supporting characters who aren’t so much essential to this particular plot (i.e. the gay couple Olivier and Gabri) as to the life and development of the town. Penny is creating a place here, and it’s certainly worth the time of sinking into the narrative both from the immediate who-dunnit prospective and for the purpose of forming a longtime bond with denizens you will most certainly want to visit again.

The mystery itself is suitably serpentine with red herrings and intense complexity involving hunting strategies, vintage bows, and Three Pine’s (and thereby Jane’s) past. There are many directions in which the scattered clues point, and Gamache must marvel again at the violence and horribleness of death while trying to understand secret motivations, potentially harbored for a lifetime. The introductory nature of the narrative keeps the clue solving slow as we build a stunning acquaintance with the characters and while this hurts the mystery slightly, it’s worth the time and attention to detail to fully cultivate the atmosphere. Three Pines becomes real, as do the people in it. This, in and of itself, is priceless. From the zaney, sarcastic interplay of Olivier and Gabri, to the eccentric nature of book store owner (and strange crafter) Myrna, to the mismatched marriage of Peter and Clara, and back again to the angst and internal struggle of Gamache, the characters demand attention and a fervent outpouring of emotion from the reader. Each character grows in a fashion so recognizable and poignant that his or her internal life is laid bare before us yet still, oddly, a mystery. We come to know these people as they attempt to define themselves and we watch as actions and interactions change them, confuse them, and make the story deeper and beyond the particular presented mystery into a weird slice-of-life symbolic eulogy amidst an investigative background. Well played, Penny, and well blended.

The one element of new writing – or at least the beginning birth pangs of a series – are subtle but when you’ve encountered the same place and characters through a later book first, evident. The red herring involving a young suspect and family goes on too long and seems too strange and complicated to be true. This somewhat dims the realism of the tale, as does the end revelation where a killer is suddenly unveiled – the person’s motivations a little too text-book Freudian, a little too explained and wrapped in an easily digestible finale where bland telling, not active seeing, prevails. We needed more time and more hints. We needed to believe a little more. Of course, this is all exceptional nit picking, because Penny’s series is arguably the best cozy mystery out there and the few quibbles and errors in this book hardly detract from its overall superiority. I just like to pick – at everything. Hazards of reviewing as a hobby.

And so, sitting aside the paperback with the sinister flower and broken window cover, the world of Three Pines still haunts, still calls out for me to walk its woods and trails, to inhabit the hearts and homes of its people, to introspect on the stunning nature of humanity and the secrets buried over centuries. The next novel in the series is already purchased and hopefully on its way to my mailbox soon. Highly recommended.

–        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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