Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache 1) by Louise Penny

Armand of Avonlea…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When a much-loved resident of the small town of Three Pines is murdered, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team are sent from the Sûreté du Quebec to investigate. Gamache is much taken by the apparently idyllic life here, so much slower than city life and with a real sense of community, but he will slowly begin to uncover the hidden secrets of some of the residents.

This is the first in what may be the one series of which I’ve read most glowing reviews in my time on the blogosphere. Several long-term fans warned me that it’s not the best of the series, which is often true of the first book in many series. A lot of time is naturally spent introducing the people who will become recurring characters, and in a book with such a strong setting, a good deal of space has to be devoted to creating that too.

I had rather mixed feelings about it, to be honest. As with so much modern crime it is far too long for its content, with so much waffling and painting of word pictures that sometimes the plot seems to have been entirely forgotten, not just by the reader but by many of the characters too. Gamache spends inordinate amounts of time sitting on benches or in cafes, eating freshly-baked muffins and mulling about life in general. The Three Pines setting reminded me of Avonlea – lots of quirky but fundamentally good-hearted people all supporting each other and being generally lovely. I’ve never actually come across a place like that and am not convinced they exist outside children’s fiction, but I see the attraction of spending some time there.

Not that everything is idyllic, of course – we get a little mild homophobia, although of course the main characters are all totally non-homophobic, non-racist, non-greedy, non-selfish and non-everything else that makes fictional people generally repugnant but (*whispers*) interesting. And there’s a murder, so obviously there’s at least one bad apple in the wholesome barrel of the town.

Louise Penny

But the murder is really just an unfortunate blip in a world where everyone loves each other devotedly, spending their time being understanding and caring, gathering together to carry out soul-cleansing rituals in the woods, and eating lavish amounts of home-made soup and fresh bread – always fresh. (I found myself wondering if there is somewhere in the wealthy Western world where people serve their guests mouldy bread? I’d have felt the freshness of the bread could be a given, just once.) Joking aside, I did find Penny’s habit of using at least one adjective per noun got a little wearing, especially when some nouns always attracted the same adjective each time, and it added to the feeling that I had at times that I was wading through a word-bog.

However, it was interesting enough as a first book for me to stick with the series for one or two more, to see if the slightly saccharin taste wears off and if the characters become less idealised. I was hoping that perhaps the later books would be shorter given that the setting has already been described in this one with as much detail as an Ordnance Survey map, but sadly I see they actually tend to get longer over time. I’m hoping that’s because the characters and stories become more complex…

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65 thoughts on “Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache 1) by Louise Penny

  1. I am not the biggest fan of this series but I have read a few of the books and enjoyed them. I don’t remember which I’ve read but it wasn’t this one and they weren’t in order. I quite like the gentleness of the stories (against the more grim murder I normally read) but I also know what you mean with your review….they are the most tense of novels.

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    • I should probably have jumped in mid-series – the first book in a series is often the weakest. I think the real problem is the length. I find a lot of contemporary crime is far too long and waffly, instead of sticking with the plot. But I’ll try one or two more, maybe from the middle, and hopefully I’ll learn to love them!

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  2. Not sure if I’ll read this or not, but I might re-read one of the Anne books. I think I’d like to spend some time in Avonlea.
    As for fresh bread, it’s not a given at my house. I’ve eaten plenty of toast before realising that the bread still in the packet is mouldy. If you ever end up a guest at my house, consider yourself warned!

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  3. I have borrowed this book twice from the library and returned it largely unread. And the thought of beginning another series of long novels has put me off. After reading your review I think I’ve made the right decision – although, plenty of other bloggers love them.

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  4. The fictional world you described comes a little too close to my memories of Barney.😅😅
    Anyway, I’ve heard about this series but haven’t really gotten to reading it. It’s a crime book, and I love crime books, so I might give it a shot.
    And yeah, some nasty things make characters a lot more “interesting”. Gives them a personality, sort of.
    Cool post, I enjoyed reading.🤗

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    • Hahaha, I do like fictional worlds to feel a bit more realistic! Loads of people love this series though, so I’ll give it another try – maybe one of the books from the middle when she’d had more experience. The characters might have developed a bit more depth too – they really were too nice in this one!
      Thank you and thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

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  5. I wondered if this book/series would work for you. I enjoy the series and the (by now) familiarity of its characters, and I’m happy to follow its compassionate and meandering style as it reveals some darkness of human motivations and actions. I can also see how this could be an irritating ‘too much’ for some readers.

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    • My sweet spot is so narrow with crime fiction – must be realistic but not too grim, complex but not too twisty, not too short, not too long! In fact, I sometimes think I’m Goldilocks! 😉 I’ll maybe try one from the middle of the series next and see what they’re like once she was really into her stride…

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  6. On the one hand, FictionFan, I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this one more. That’s probably because I’m one of those people who really does like it, and I hoped you would, too. That said, though, this one isn’t the best in the series, I don’t think, and I understand your point about the length. I wonder why it is that a lot of contemporary novels are like that… At any rate, I’m glad you’re willing to give Penny another try at some point. I hope you’ll like that one more.

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    • I knew that several people had said this wasn’t one of the best so my expectations were realistic, which helped. I could certainly see the attraction of Three Pines and hopefully it feels a bit more realistic in later books, but the length of them is really off-putting to me. I might jump to the middle of the series and try one from when she’d really got into her stride…

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  7. Well, obviously this is simply what it’s like to live in Canada…where everyone is good-hearted and our bread is always fresh! This series does seem to be endlessly popular and I can see the appeal of reading about a place that is essentially safe and cozy. Though it’s hard to see where a murder fits into that…

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  8. This is certainly a very popular series, possibly one of the main reasons why I have been able to resist it, plus the fact it has around 15 books, possibly more: far too many in my opinion. Having said that, I loved the Avonlea books when I was around 10 or so, they certainly had charm, though a story about sweet people essentially being sweet seem a rather odd one for a crime series.

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    • Yes, the length of the series puts me off too, as does the length of each book! There were probably only about half as many in the series back when I acquired this one admittedly. I did think the murder felt out of place here – it was hard to believe that there could be someone bad living in perfect Three Pines without anyone noticing,,,

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  9. I’ll be interested to see what you make of the next book if you read it. I read this one and didn’t really like it for many of the reasons you listed. But I’d be open to trying one more to see if it improves. It’s true that the first in mystery series usually aren’t the best.

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    • I might jump to the middle of the series for my next attempt, when she’d had time to get properly into her stride. In general, I’m never convinced that reading a series in order is a good idea for that very reason – the first book often puts me off.

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  10. Sorry this didnt quite work out. This is a series I haven’t yet tried out but I’ll wait to see from your reviews if it improves as it goes.

    Your review did make me want to eat a muffin and go back to PEI; it’s been a while since I read Anne

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  11. The town doesn’t become less idealized, although for such a nice place there are a lot of murders (not all set in the town), but there is an ongoing plot with corruption in the police that’s a lot more dark. I read this series for a long time but finally got tired of its tropes and regular characters.

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  12. As you know, I enjoy this series and have read them all, though there are some things I always nitpick about. (how much folks can tell about a person by looking at someone’s eyes, some of the pointless profanity, the author’s personal agenda, the over-the-top situations) I didn’t become fully vested in it until the third book and have found some to be far better than others. I remember being surprised in the first couple of books the racism between the French and English populations. (much like what you find in the Donna Leon books between Naples and Venice) Honestly, I’m not sure it’s a series that will ever really appeal to you.

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    • Yes, the profanity seemed as out of place as the murder! I’m not sure it’ll be for me either, but I’ll probably try one from the middle of the series to see if it works any better for me once she’s got into her stride. The length will always put me off though, as with so much contemporary crime. Generally I find it’s full of padding rather than plotting. I don’t know that I noted her agenda in this one, beyond the usual liberal wokeness that infests every book these days! Ha, the English and French have hated each other for centuries despite being allies in two world wars! When I used to go on holiday over there, the most important phrase I learned was I’m not English, I’m Scottish! 😉

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      • The only problem with jumping into this series midstream is that there are several plots that run throughout. It could be confusing. Plus, there’s the usual character development. It was only through time I grew to like many of the residents of Three Pines. But… it might work for you. My brother and his wife started listening to them well into the series and never had any problem with it.

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        • I used to jump into series mid-way a lot and actually usually prefer it even if it does mean I don’t know everything that’s going on with the characters. I find the middle books in most series are the best ones. Even my Dalziel and Pascoe re-read is reminding me of that – it’s the half dozen or so in the middle that I think are great, while the earlier and later ones aren’t quite as strong.

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  13. I’ve read all the books in this series and found some much better than others. I’m sorry this one didn’t appeal to you, but it doesn’t surprise me. The first in a series generally leaves me feeling “meh.” I started mid-series with The Beautiful Mystery and was immediately hooked. Penny’s writing seemed to improve as she went along, and the characters displayed a depth the early books lacked. I suppose a picturesque country village isn’t a setting for every reader, but I always look forward to the release of another Three Pines tale. Better luck next time, FF!

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    • I should know better than to start with the first book in a series – it’s so often the weakest. I think I might jump to the middle for my next attempt and see if they work better for me once she’s got properly into her stride. The characters definitely lacked depth in this one – there’s no group of people who all love each other totally uncritically like this group, or if there are, they don’t make for interesting fiction! Fingers crossed the next one I try wins me over… 😀

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    • I often wonder that too, but I suppose that publishers must see the potential and be prepared to take a chance on the first two or three books not gaining a huge audience. If I jump in mid-series and become a fan I’ll then go back to the beginning so in the long term they probably find it’s a worthwhile investment. Series that start with a bang quite often collapse within a few books…

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  14. This series might not be your cup of tea, but this is the weakest of the books I’ve read and has the most idealized vision of the place. Three Pines remains pretty utopian but the stories do get quite dark and there are interesting storylines that weave through several books for various characters. I have to be in the right mood to pick one up, but I enjoy the series.

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    • Well, that’s good to hear – this one definitely suffered from a lack of darkness despite the murder. I’ll probably jump to the middle of the series for my next attempt, once she’s well into her stride, and see if that works better for me. But I must say the length of them is off-putting – I find contemporary crime spends more time on characters’ relationship issues than on the actual plot, and that drives me up the wall…

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        • It’s the balance, I think. In some series the characters take over from the plot, which is fine in lit-fic but not in crime, which I feel should be focused and reasonably fast-paced. But that’s what makes me out of synch with modern crime, so I grudgingly accept lots of people like the character development side of it.

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  15. I hope you hang on in there, as the characters develop there are a lot of surprises, but I enjoy the atmosphere of Three Pines despite it being a rather dangerous place to live!

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    • I think I might jump to the middle of the series next time, once she’d got into her stride a bit more, and see if that works better for me. The first one or two in any series are often the weakest.

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  16. ha! So I must admit I don’t follow this series, I’ve read one or two and generally enjoyed them, so hopefully it gets better as you go along. I’m actually reading the Louse Penny and Hilary Clinton book right now, which is something they wrote together – more of a spy/political thriller, so it’s quite different than the Gamache series.

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  17. The series does get stronger as it progresses – by about book 4 it is clear there is a conspiracy against Gamache which puts his life and career in jeopardy. I love the series but did jump in mid way – if I’d started with book 1 I think I might have found it a bit slow

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