Book review: Louise Penny sustains sleight of hand in ‘Still Life’

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

When book club meetings get spaced out for summer, there’s time for asking your librarian to find a mystery series you haven’t sampled. The result in this case is the “Inspector Gamache” series by Louise Penny.

Chief Inspector Gamache, unlike most mystery-series detectives that I’m aware of, coordinates a homicide team. Seemingly the team does most of the detail work, leaving Gamache free to contemplate. The series is set in Montreal, which allows the location and French/English tension to contribute to the story.

“Still Life” is the first of the series. It is set in Three Pines, such a small community that it is almost impossible to find on a map. It has a history that dates pre-Revolutionary War, a noticeable art community and as a result of its size, or lack of, everyone literally knows everyone else — well. When former teacher and secret artist Jane Neal is found dead in the woods near her home, Gamache’s team is called in. At first thought to be a hunting accident, it eventually becomes clear that the killer must actually be in their midst.

Penny is a master at setting up suspects for the reader to see as the real culprit. In “Still Life,” she can sustain the sleight of hand to the very end. As a skilled writer, Penny offers some interesting observations aside from the mystery aspect.

“But in the country death comes, uninvited, during the day. It takes fishermen in longboats. It grabs children by their ankles when they swim. In the winter it calls them down a slope too steep for their budding skills…. And it tugs cars off the road in broad daylight, the tires spinning furiously on ice or snow….”

Or from a retired psychologist:

“Most of the people came through my door because of a crisis in their lives, and most of those crises boiled down to loss. Loss of a marriage or an important relationship. Loss of security. A job, a home, a parent. Something drove them to ask for help to look deep inside themselves. And the catalyst was often change or loss. Are they the same thing?”

There is a reason Penny has become a national bestseller. It’s very likely you’ll get hooked if you sample “Still Life.”

“Still Life” is available through your local public library.

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