Louise Penny

Still Life

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Still Life Summary

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Still Life is a 2005 mystery novel by Canadian author Louise Penny. Set in the fictional Quebec village of Three Pines, it concerns the investigation of the mysterious death of a former schoolteacher, Jane Neal. The town’s Chief Inspector, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté, becomes the principal investigator of her case, interviewing people with whom she was in contact before her body was found. What at first seems to be a death by hunting accident soon reveals itself to be far more sinister than anyone, even the seasoned Gamache, ever imagined. Penny utilizes the remote Canadian wilderness and the archetypical small-minded Canadian town as an ominous backdrop for a murder plot that frustrates her protagonist’s attempt to determine the truth.

The novel begins when Jane Neal’s corpse is found in the woods outside Three Pines. The news of her death comes as a devastating shock to the town, as she was a well-respected teacher who had recently retired. Armand Gamache attends Jane’s autopsy and notices a puncture wound on her torso. Further analysis of the wound reveals wooden splinters, confirming that it was created by a wooden arrow. Gamache hypothesizes that Jane was shot in a hunting accident, or, even worse, by an assailant.

First, Gamache approaches the man who discovered Jane’s body, Ben Hadley. Ben was one of Jane’s closest friends and denies involvement in her death. He also doubts that anyone murdered her, as she was universally well-liked. Next, Gamache interviews Jane’s best friend, Clara Marrow. Clara says that Jane submitted a still life painting entitled “Fair Day” to a local art opening. She finds this peculiar because Jane had previously been very private about her art. Gamache finds that the painting was dated contemporaneously with the death of Jane’s friend, Timmer, several weeks earlier. Gamache attempts to investigate Jane’s house, but her niece, Yolande, disallows it.

Gamache’s research on Ben and Timmer brings him to another lead, Matthew Croft. He interviews Matthew and his wife, noticing that they are averse to him checking out their basement. He searches it and finds an arrowhead which, at the lab, is found to contain Jane’s DNA. Gamache hypothesizes that Phillipe, Matthew’s son, killed Jane in a hunting accident. Phillipe tells him that Matthew killed Jane and forced him to hide the evidence. Though his claim is dubious, Gamache’s boss tells him to arrest Matthew. When he refuses, the police chief replaces him with his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

Clara finds an arrow lodged in a tree at the site of Jane’s death. Gamache works with Beauvoir to analyze the arrow. They find that it is from Philippe’s bow, and realize that Philippe likely believed he accidentally shot Jane, and retrieved someone else’s arrow from her body instead of retrieving his from the tree. With this evidence, Gamache is reinstated as lead investigator, and the case is finally opened as a homicide. Gamache obtains a search warrant for Jane’s house and comes upon a bizarrely wallpapered interior. He peels it back and finds hundreds of drawings of the townspeople of Three Pines, drawn by Jane. Yolande confesses that she covered the drawings out of embarrassment. Meanwhile, Clara finds Jane’s updated will with a clause entitling her to Jane’s art.

On the evening of the art exhibition that includes Jane’s work “Fair Day,” Clara throws a party at Jane’s in her memory. There, while comparing the wallpaper to the painting, Clara notices that one of the portraits has been removed and replaced with a different drawing. Gamache and Clara deduce that that person is Ben Hadley, making him their new suspect.

Ben kidnaps Clara and tries to make a getaway. However, while running in a panic, he hits a wall and knocks himself out. Gamache arrests him and extracts confessions for the deaths of both Jane and Timmer, the latter who had allegedly died of cancer. Ben had killed Timmer out of revenge because she had excluded him from her will. When Ben saw “Fair Day,” he deduced that Jane knew he killed his mother, since his presence in the painting contradicted his alibi that he was not in Three Pines the day she died.

The resolution of Still Life ultimately pivots on its protagonists’ art literacy, as well as their ability to read individuals’ claims to truth. Eerie and complex, Penny’s novel represents an important contribution to the Canadian mystery genre.