43 pages 1 hour read

Louise Penny

Still Life

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2005, Still Life is Louise Penny’s debut novel, the first in a series of mystery novels set in rural Canada featuring detective Armand Gamache. Penny won multiple awards for Still Life, including a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award, a Barry Award, an Arthur Ellis Award, an Anthony Award, and the Dilys Award. A made-for-TV film adaptation produced by PDM Entertainment aired in 2013. This guide is based on the 2006 Minotaur Books edition.

Plot Summary

The plot of Still Life centers on an official investigation following the death of Jane Neal, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher who lived in the small town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada. Jane is found dead in the woods on Thanksgiving Sunday, just two days after deciding to submit her artwork for an exhibition for the first time ever. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, homicide investigator for the Sûreté du Québec, leads the investigation. He is accompanied by his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, as well as a recently certified agent, Yvette Nichol, who is eager to impress but fails to integrate with Gamache’s team. Examining the crime scene, they find evidence that Jane was killed by an arrow in a possible hunting accident.

Gamache and his team investigate the local archery club owned by Ben Hadley, the man who discovered Jane’s body. Ben’s mother, Timmer, who died about a month before Jane, was a friend of Jane’s. They also meet with Peter and Clara Morrow, Jane’s friends and next-door neighbors, as well as Yolande Fontaine, Jane’s niece and next of kin, who was not on good terms with Jane. Yolande takes legal action to prevent the police from entering Jane’s home. Gamache learns that Jane never allowed anyone to go beyond the kitchen in her home.

Hoping to turn up new leads, Gamache calls a community meeting, where he learns that Matthew Croft was once caught hunting illegally near the area where Jane died. He visits the Croft family later in the day and finds potentially damning evidence, which he sends to a lab for analysis. Over the next few days, Gamache and his agents continue to follow multiple threads of investigation, leading Gamache to the conclusion that Jane was killed by a skilled local hunter.

When traces of Jane’s blood are found on evidence collected at the Crofts’ home, Gamache confronts Mr. and Mrs. Croft. However, he becomes unsure what to do when the evidence points to Philippe Croft, Matthew’s son, while Matthew confesses to the crime. When he disobeys an order from his superior officer to arrest Matthew Croft, Gamache is suspended. A few days later, one of the Crofts’ arrows is found in the woods, officially clearing them. Philippe thought he accidentally killed Jane, and his father confessed to protect him.

Gamache is reinstated. He obtains a warrant to enter Jane’s house and is surprised to find tacky wallpaper covering the walls. He discovers that Yolande put up the wallpaper to cover Jane’s art, which she drew all over the walls, creating a pictorial history of Three Pines and its residents. He also uncovers a previously unknown will leaving Jane’s house to Clara rather than Yolande. Painstakingly, Peter, Clara, and Ben work to remove Yolande’s wallpaper and reveal Jane’s art.

The day of the art exhibit arrives. Examining Jane’s painting, Fair Day, which depicts the closing parade of the county fair, held on the day that Ben’s mother died, Clara notices that one face—Ben’s—has been removed and painted over. She doesn’t tell anyone but realizes that Ben must have killed Jane. She confronts Ben, who takes her into the basement of his mother’s house to kill her. Gamache pieces together what happened and arrives on the scene but is injured in the process.

A week later, Gamache attends a dinner party in Three Pines and explains that Ben killed his mother when she planned to reduce his inheritance, hoping to encourage him to be more proactive. Later, when Ben learned of Jane’s painting, he misinterpreted it as proof that Jane knew he killed his mother, so he took action to modify the painting and kill Jane.

In addition to its compelling central mystery, Penny’s novel provides insightful commentary on country life, the creation and interpretation of art, and the tension between the individual and the collective.

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