Still Life by Louise PennyMy first books of the new year are detective novels in a series by Canadian writer Louise Penny.

Some fictional detectives are damaged, like Sherlock Holmes and television’s Adrian Monk, but others are paragons, professionally and personally: Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Penny’s Armand Gamache—the assured, seasoned, and successful head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec—is in the second category. While he’s endured sadness and betrayal, those challenges have only made him a better detective and a wiser man.

This is how Penny describes him (partially for the benefit of readers just joining the series) in her fourth book, A Rule Against Murder:

“Armand Gamache was the explorer. He went ahead of all the rest, into territory unknown and unchartered. He was drawn to the edge of things…He stepped into the beyond, and found monsters hidden deep inside all the reasonable, gentle, laughing people….followed slimy trails, deep into a person’s pysche, and there, huddled and barely human, he found a murderer.

His team had a near perfect record, and they did it by sorting facts from fancy from wishful thinking. They did it by collecting clues and evidence. And emotions.

Armand Gamache knew something most other investigators at the famed Sûreté du Quebec never quite grasped. Murder was deeply human…Something once healthy and human had become wretched and bloated and finally buried. But not put to rest. It lay there, often for decades, feeding on itself…Until it finally broke free of all human constraint…”

Gamache is so good he’s almost beyond belief—and yet Penny makes him believable in his quiet, probing interactions with a recurring cast of characters: his family, his team, and the people of Three Pines, the little Quebecois village where many of the crimes occur.

A large part of the charm of this series, for me, resides in Penny’s specific descriptions of everything in Three Pines from the autumn leaves on the forest floor to the sandwiches served at the local B&B. And I’m learning more about my own French-Canadian heritage, from the beauty of the Quebec countryside and to recent history, such as the enduring tensions between the Francophones and the Anglos.

Penny’s most recent book is The Beautiful Mystery, which has been rising on the bestseller lists in both Canada and the U.S.—but that’s book eight. I wanted to start at the beginning, with Still Life. So far, I’ve continued with:

The Cruelest Month (book 3)
A Rule Against Murder (4)
The Brutal Telling (5)

Steadily making my way to the current volume. Delighted to have found this engaging series!